Protecting the Head with Modernized Technology

With a better understanding [of] how traumatic brain injuries occur, a Brown-led research team hopes to develop new standards for head protection and next-generation helmets,” reads a news story from Brown University.  In July, the Office of Naval Research granted the university $4.75 million to study brain injury, specifically as it relates to helmet use in the military and in athletics.

Currently, helmets must essentially follow standards that were set in the late 1970’s (there have been changes in sizing since that time), with the technology that was available 40 years ago when computers were still an anomaly.  “[Brown University associate professor Christian Frank’s lab] has developed a novel technique for measuring for effects of traumatic forces on individual neurons…  a custom-built device that can apply compressive forces to neurons inside three-dimensional cell cultures [not a 2D petri dish, as is presently used].”  With these updated and more stringent standards, Brown University and their associates hope to first develop a helmet that can gather all the data about the brain during the action that resulted in its injury.  Ultimately, because they are now learning about the effects of injury on a cellular level, researchers hope to develop a helmet prototype to completely prevent such injuries.

Linking Li to the Brain

In 2014, the National Institute of Health deemed lithium (Li) to be of medical assistance in the treatment of traumatic brain injury.  However, the NIH determination came only from the promising results of a preclinical study.  Now, Rutgers University has released the findings of a three year study, funded by the New Jersey Commission of Brain Injury Research, that corroborates the NIH’s findings.

Commonly used to treat bipolar disorder, “Rutgers researchers discovered that lithium, as well as rapamycin (an immunosuppressant used to treat cancer), protects healthy brain cells from a toxic buildup of a chemical.”  Specifically, this study identified the massive buildup of glutamate.  Glutamate is a chemical in the body that, in healthy doses, promotes learning and memory.  However, in the high doses that can result from the body’s innate response to brain injury, it can be toxic to the cells.

The current results apply to recovery only from concussion.  However, given the positive results thus far, further studies are likely to be in the works.

Camps for a Cure

Located in San Diego, CA, Camp Pendleton proclaims to be, “The West Coast’s Premier Expeditionary [Marines] Training Base.”  Last Tuesday, May 9, they broke ground on a $12 million, 25,000 square foot facility that aims to make the Camp a premier brain injury research and treatment center, too.  The funding needed to build the facility was raised through private donations and the funding of Arnold Fisher, a New York-based real estate tycoon.   Fisher says that he sees helping the troops as his duty as an American.

Part of the Department of Defense organization National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), which is headquartered in Maryland, the Camp Pendleton facility will be the seventh of nine planned NICoE facilities focused on brain injury and the first on the West Coast.  Presently, NICoE has erected facilities in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Fort Hood, Texas, and Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  A center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, is still under construction and facilities are still to be built in Fort Carson, Colorado and Fort Blass, Texas.

Beyond Marine training, the Camp defines part of its vision to be, “providing superior service and support.”  Therefore, they also deal with the injuries that may come as a result of a brain injury or come in conjunction with it – specifically, physical and behavioral problems.  In fact, Camp Pendleton has been training and supporting the troops for 75 years.

So far, NICoE facilities have about a 90% rate for patients to return to duty.  Still, as Capt. Lisa Mulligan, commanding officer at the Camp Pendleton hospital, says, “Science as a whole remains in the infancy of its understanding of the potential for recovery after head injury.  This center will combine the resources of clinical, research and educational specialists to broaden our horizons.

Have a TBI?  Find out anytime, anyplace.

Neurological injury is a significant health concern for military service members, recognizes the Department of Defense.  Last year, for example, 17,672 service members were diagnosed with a brain injury.  While the military may not be able to eliminate neurological injuries entirely, the DoD has granted $11.3 million to Abbott Laboratories for the development of a mobile device that allows one to determine if they have a traumatic brain injury, anytime and anyplace.  Interestingly, this product only relies on such things as the proteins in the blood to find brain injuries.  It will be developed in Princeton, New Jersey, with the assistance of the U.S. Army Medical Research Acquisition Activity in Frederick, Maryland, and has an estimated completion date of October 23, 2019.  (In 2014, the DoD awarded Abbott $19.5 million to develop a portable blood test to determine brain injury.  However, even then, Abbott said that the product being developed was, “the first phase of what… would be a multi-phased contract.”)

Update: Drones Promise Quick, Not Safe Delivery

Drones are on their way to becoming the preferred method of retail delivery and much more.  Currently, however, the air technology can only be used in a few limited locations.  Before they become ubiquitous, though, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) must assure that this way of delivery, that may weigh 50+ pounds, is safe for humans.  (Not just for airplane safety, the FAA is responsible for the safety of U.S. airspace from the ground up.)  Given their weight and their height of flight, head safety related to drones is of particular concern.

This has already been an issue this year.  On February 24, 2017, for example, a Seattle man was sentenced to a $500 fine and 30-days in jail because his drone hit a woman, causing her to lose consciousness.  However, current news also shows that drones can prove a benefit to those with a head injury.  In St. Louis, Minnesota the sheriff’s office is testing drones so, ultimately, they, “can look for missing persons, or a child, or maybe someone [who] was injured in an accident and sustained a head injury and wandered off.”

Federal-sponsored drone tests are also revealing.  At a government-approved test center at Virginia Tech, a drone is being tested again a crash-test dummy.  In testing, “the 21-pound drone tilted forward, accelerated sharply and slammed into [the drone’s] head, smacking the crash-test dummy’s neck backward and embedding shards of shattered propeller in his plastic face.”  Mark Black, director of the Virginia Tech drone test, asks, “When does the [head injury] threshold cross an unacceptable level?”

Although it is horrible to think of a head injury threshold, the Federal Aviation Administration knows that it can never make drones perfectly safe, just as airplanes will never be one hundred percent safe.  However, does the proposed FAA rule saying that, “Drones would have to fly 20 feet above people’s heads, and have a 10-foot buffer space on all sides,” satisfy the safety rules enough?

Update: Yesterday, an article appeared on the Fortune website regarding the safety of drones.  Specifically, it references and links to a research study conducted by the FAA that was released on Friday, April 28.  Generally, the research shows that, “both steel debris and the wood block caused significantly more damage to the dummy than the drone, which absorb much of the impact because it’s made of more flexible materials.”

Long-awaited, Expanded Research Facility Opens in Waco

For seven years, there have been high hopes and expectations that Waco, Texas would be host to a world-class VA research facility.  Consolidating the Austin-based Brain Injury Recovery Laboratory and Waco’s Center of Excellence into one facility, it was thought that, 1 “this program consolidation will enable [the] VA to meet its mission of better understanding brain injuries…”  Waco is right next to Fort Hood, so the high hopes seemed in tune with location reality.  Right before it opened, then-Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Waco) lauded it as, “one of the few programs in the country focused on the links between genes and brain anatomy in the development of PTSD and mental illness in our combat soldiers.”  The Center even had many designated areas of the building devoted to the study of TBI and PTSD.  However, after all the excitement of the opening of the facility ended, it seems that much of the research activity in it essentially did too.

Perhaps it was all of these high hopes, coupled with the new, expensive equipment,  that led to the program’s perceived failure.  In 2014, “a 10-month [local newspaper] investigation… found that the VA squandered millions of dollars and six years of research opportunity just as brain injuries were spiking among U.S. service members.”  (Of particular note was the finding that a MRI scanner that was purchased in 2008 for $3.6 million, had since stayed dormant.)  This investigation was noticed by Congress, who started an investigation of their own, launched by Rep. Bill Flores (R-Waco).

Last week, the VA debuted a new, expanded state-of-the-art research facility in Waco, Texas.  (This is very similar to the nomenclature that was used in 2009 for the facility’s original launch and, in fact, this new facility was originally planned to open in 2011.)  Housed in the Doris Miller Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the VISN 17 Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans, as it’s known, employs 70 people from around the country.  These people must then find residence in Waco.  Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver says that, “attracting these well-paid professionals to Waco will ripple through the local economy,” which is an unexpected benefit of the Center.  Currently, a number of studies have already been planned, including Project Serve, SHE Study, the Moral Injury Project and treatment of traumatic brain injury using EEG neurofeedback.

Trump Seeks to Shrink BRAIN (Funding)

A few weeks ago, President Trump submitted his proposed budget to Congress.  Related to health issues, President Trump’s budget:

Reduces the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) spending relative to the 2017 annualized
CR level by $5.8 billion to $25.9 billion. The Budget includes a major reorganization of NIH’s
Institutes and Centers to help focus resources on the highest priority research and training
activities, including: eliminating the Fogarty International Center; consolidating the Agency for
Healthcare Research and Quality within NIH; and other consolidations and structural changes
across NIH organizations and activities. The Budget also reduces administrative costs and
rebalance Federal contributions to research funding.

Read full text here

President Trump’s proposed budget would include a massive reduction of funding to the NIH and, though not specifically mentioned in the written, public-version of the budget, a reduction in funding for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN).  In response, a bipartisan group of Representatives, including  U.S. Representatives Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), Tim Murphy (R-PA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) sent a letter to Rep. Cole and Rep. DeLauro, president and ranking member, respectively, of the Labor Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee urging a stay of current funding for the National Institute of Health’s BRAIN.  Pascrell is, of course, the founder and co-chair of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force.

(As reported last year, Presidents Obama’s 2017 budget increased the funding for BRAIN.)

A Weapon that Hurts the Soldier with Every Shot

When thinking of war, civilians may think of the possible consequences to soldiers as they relate to the actions of the opposition.  Rarely does one consider that by defending oneself and the country, American soldiers may be harming themselves, as well.

However, evaluation of methods of warfare defense shows that personal-injury will occur when in battle.  For example, the Carl-Gustaf system, a shoulder-fired weapon weighing approximately 10 pounds, may be called “the best [recoilless] multi-purpose weapon.”  A single shot from this powerful weapon produces a burst of gas from its muzzle and breech towards the shooter.  (“It feels like you get punched in your whole body,” is the way one Army gunner described it.)

When the Carl-Gustaf system was presented to the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force, one member asked what all of us wonder and worry:  “What kind of damage is that doing to soldiers in training and on the battlefields?”  The Army knows of this “brain-injury problem” and started testing the effects of the weapon on American soldiers, as early as 2011.

Drones Promise Quick, Not Safe Delivery

Drones are on their way to becoming the preferred method of retail delivery and much more.  Currently, however, the air technology can only be used in a few limited locations.  Before they become ubiquitous, though, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) must assure that this way of delivery, that may weigh 50+ pounds, is safe for humans.  (Not just for airplane safety, the FAA is responsible for the safety of U.S. airspace from the ground up.)  Given their weight and their height of flight, head safety related to drones is of particular concern.

This has already been an issue this year.  On February 24, 2017, for example, a Seattle man was sentenced to a $500 fine and 30-days in jail because his drone hit a woman, causing her to lose consciousness.  However, current news also shows that drones can prove a benefit to those with a head injury.  In St. Louis, Minnesota the sheriff’s office is testing drones so, ultimately, they, “can look for missing persons, or a child, or maybe someone [who] was injured in an accident and sustained a head injury and wandered off.”

Federal-sponsored drone tests are also revealing.  At a government-approved test center at Virginia Tech, a drone is being tested again a crash-test dummy.  In testing, “the 21-pound drone tilted forward, accelerated sharply and slammed into [the drone’s] head, smacking the crash-test dummy’s neck backward and embedding shards of shattered propeller in his plastic face.”  Mark Black, director of the Virginia Tech drone test, asks, “When does the [head injury] threshold cross an unacceptable level?”

Although it is horrible to think of a head injury threshold, the Federal Aviation Administration knows that it can never make drones perfectly safe, just as airplanes will never be one hundred percent safe.  However, does the proposed FAA rule saying that, “Drones would have to fly 20 feet above people’s heads, and have a 10-foot buffer space on all sides,” satisfy the safety rules enough?

10 Seconds to Safety

Combat sports like boxing, wrestling and mixed martial arts, by definition, have a high potential of harming the head and brain.  Because of this, in 1985, the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (NJSACB) was created to, “protect the safety and well-being of all participants and promote the public confidence and trust in the regulatory process and conduct of public boxing and other combative sport.”   This month, the New Jersey State government approved the testing of a new technology that hopes to make combat sports, well, less combative.  Specifically, NJSACB , which sets the athletic parameters in a state that is home to such combat sports locations as Atlantic City and the Prudential Center, approved the testing of EyeGuide Focus.

EyeGuide Focus, “uses a camera [attached to a headset] to record the action of the athlete’s eyes as they track a cursor that makes a sideways figure 8 on a computer screen.”   Because it is able to track the eye 60 times a second, according to the manufacturer, EyeGuide can detect concussions in only 10 seconds.

This past Saturday, February 18, the eye technology was tested at the Cage Fury Fighting Championships at The Borgata in Atlantic City.  As of February 23, the results of these tests are not available for public view.  On May 20, EyeGuide will again be tested at the Top Rank WBC/WBO Junior Welterweight Championship in Newark.*

* Even though the publicity of this device focuses on the use of EyeGuide Focus in combat sports, EyeGuide has larger applications.  According to the manufacturer, the EyeGuide Focus is affordable, so that it can be purchased for use in a wide variety of settings, from MMA matches to high school sports games (the EyeGuide website has the product listed for purchase at $9,999).