High-Tech Crystals May Help Diagnose Battlefield Brain Injuries

For years, Pentagon officials have been worried about troops who have survived an IED blast seemingly ok, but are left suffering from serious concussions and worse. Now, there may be a way for medics to quickly and easily identify troops that have these injuries.

These invisible wounds have a cumulative effect, with each successive head injury causing more and more damage. While doctors have been studying the effects of head injuries brought about by everything from car crashes to violent hits in football, the shockwaves generated by IEDs may be an entirely different beast.

From MIT’s Technology Review:

Growing evidence suggests that the shockwaves produced by these explosions lead to injuries that are different from concussions suffered in car accidents and football games—and that even seemingly minor blasts, from which a soldier might walk away apparently unharmed, could damage the brain, especially with repeated exposure.

Now, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania hare developing crystals that change color when shattered by IED shockwaves. This would give medics an easy way of seeing how much blast energy a soldier has absorbed, allowing them to more accurately assess whether the victim should be treated for a possible brain injury.

“Soldiers [with mild traumatic brain injury] can often appear normal, so it’s critically important to have some kind of objective measure to denote which soldiers have been exposed to a blast that is powerful enough to cause brain injury,” says Kacy Cullen, assistant professor of neurosurgery at Penn and leader of the study. “These devices wouldn’t diagnose brain injury, but they would indicate who needs a more thorough workup, and could influence decisions about when a soldier can return to action.”

The powerful blasts triggered by improvised explosive devices generate a supersonic wave followed by another shock wave called an overpressure wave. These forces are often strong enough to throw someone in the air, triggering the kind of blunt impact one might experience in a car accident. But many scientists believe that the waves themselves, in addition to the impact, can damage the brain.

The military has amped up efforts to measure the specific properties of explosions using helmet-mounted accelerometers and pressure sensors, but these devices have drawbacks. “They can be expensive, cumbersome, and require power to operate,” says Cullen. “Ours is a materials-based indicator, so you don’t need an internal power supply; the power from the blast induces the color change.”

Here’s more info on the tech behind these crystals:

The three-dimensional crystal is made with multiple laser beams that carve precise shapes into a photosensitive plastic sheet, using holographic lithography technology developed by Shu Yang, a professor in the department of materials science and engineering at Penn. The result is a material that is mechanically strong but lightweight. By varying the chemistry and composition of the materials, the three-dimensional photonic crystals can be made very resistant to extreme heat or cold and wet or dry conditions. “You can hit it with a hammer, and it won’t change color,” says Smith. “It will only break at the type of very-high-frequency shockwave you might get in a blast.”

Scientists can even tweak the crystals to make them respond to different strength blasts.

“We can also make material so it will fail in response to repeated exposure,” says Douglas Smith, director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at Penn, who was senior author on the study. “We might create a device with multiple components that can detect both a single exposure and cumulative exposure like with a radioactivity badge.”

Anything, like these crystals, that can help save lives is a good thing, ’nuff said.

Read more about it here.

  • blight

    So they tune the crystals so that their resonant frequency matches those associated with explosive blasts? Neat.

    If you want to be McGyver, a properly enclosed glass ampule that shatters when someone gets thrown down by a IED might be a less precise way to measure TBI; and could probably get fielded much sooner. However, crystals would be more accurate but expensive.

    I am tempted to say this material might also work on SAPI plates to help analyze what kind of forces are being exerted on the plates, which may be helpful when trying to analyze what kind of small arms are being used. For instance, knowing that your enemy is using crappy 9mms would be a clue that you might get away with not having a SAPI plate, whereas damage indicated by 7.62mmx54R would be a quick way to see that someone had just been hit by a long range sniper rifle as opposed to single shots with an SKS.

    Alternatively, if crystal crushing can be used to produce energy, it might be a means to designing a detonator for land mines or mortar rounds. Tip shatters at pressure consistent with being lobbed through the air and hitting the ground. Boom. Fuze hits the ground from being dropped-does not break?

  • kim

    I’m not happy about this. My next door neighbor strongly believes in the power of pyramids, magic stones and – yes – crystals. She’ll give sceptical me a hard time when she hears about it.

  • Wildcard

    Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences already mapped out how blast waves enter the skull and came up with a clear visor that mitigates the effects.

    • blight

      You can get a TBI if a blast hits the rest of your body and transmits the force upwards to the brain. Regardless, we still need to study TBI and its causes.

      • Wildcard

        I’m all for continued study of this, but why delay a simple tech that can already mitigate blast effects? As for force being transmitted from say torso upwards to the brain, that’s not how this scenario would play out.
        The problem is multifaceted, part of it is the way a blast wave enters through the gap between the helmet and the top of the skull (parietal bone), it causes a ‘flex’ of the skull that causes another ‘wave’ to develop and pass across the brain, breaking neural pathways (possible cause of short term memory loss in soldiers exposed to repeated blast waves). The new insight is that a blast wave hitting the front of the skull allows for the same thing to occur. The clear sheild prevents contact with the blast wave and effectivly stops transmission of its effects on the brain.

        • blight

          The brain is suspended in fluids and encased in meninges. I suspect the waves propagate through the fluids, and more violently than they would in air.

          Perhaps helmets need to be redesigned, because any shock transmitted around the helmet dissipates against the head anyways. I don’t know if there’s any way to transmit forces down to the torso, or to design ways to brace the helmet without sacrificing situational awareness.

  • Love to see these in some Tests with rigged IEDs to see crystals work, How radical & for all US NATO forces alone. Radical reuse for sure for PD forces.

  • bacon

    With humvee doors like those, who needs crystals?

  • Blue1

    Kind of like the force measuring capsules Mythbusters has been using for YEARS? Come on, this tech is almost 10 years old (surpassed by the time it will be fielded). And if you don’t follow MBs, they used a three color system of capsules which break at different levels of force(most often used for blunt trauma scenerios).

  • You beat me to it Blue 1. Piezoelectric circuits are cheap, powered by stress forces alone; and the technology to record the data is dirt cheap.

  • Steven

    This is great tech. Trying to get the VA to believe you’ve been blown up by an IED of six is a different story if your in the infantry and continue your mission without medical attention cause you feel your mission supersedes your own personal wellbeing or medical attention. Ask any grunt they will say the same thing unless you absolutely can not perform your duty you drive on.

  • Ronnal Womack

    They diagnosed me with a mild brain concussion or injury but the MRIs are not showing the damage so for but I am still having head or brain, sight, concentration, and communication problems.

    If any doctors want to do scanning researches of my brain without causing any danger to me, I will be willing to accept the IED blast research to find out all the things that are wrong with my brain. I would also love to be compensated for the research on me.

    Neurologists and specialists can see what IED do to the brain from this too.
    You may email me at ronnalwomack@yahoo.com and I am located in North Charleston, South Carolina.

  • jimmy

    where can i buy some of the patches?