Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are a leading cause of death, but scientists and engineers are working on new technologies that could help reduce the severity of the problem. Each year, there are more than 1.7 million TBIs in the United States, leading to more than 275,000 hospitalizations, 52,000 deaths, and more than $60 billion in medical expenses. Collectively, they’re responsible for more than a third of all injury-related deaths.
So what are engineers doing to combat the problem?
How TBIs Occur
First, it helps to know how TBIs happen (and where they happen). According to the CDC, the vast majority of TBI cases are caused by falls, especially in residential incidents. Losing your balance, or slipping can result in a significant head injury. Being struck in the head with an object (such as a falling object or an intentional blow) is another common cause, as is being involved in a traffic accident. Intentional self-harm is also occasionally a problem.
TBIs range from mild, which cause only a fleeting change in state of mind (including temporary loss of consciousness) to severe, which cause extended periods of consciousness and/or significant memory loss.
Most tech improving our understanding and assessment of TBIs comes in the form of measurement tools. Take, for example, the Linx Impact Assessment System (IAS). The IAS is a wearable device that can be fitted underneath a headband or helmet (which is especially important in professional sports). It uses an accelerometer and a range of different measurement-taking sensors to evaluate head impacts, including the severity, frequency, and any damage that’s accumulating over time. The device then links to a smartphone (or similar device) to display readings, including the athlete’s risk of significant injury, and any technical errors in performance that are leading to more concussive events.
A similar measurement device known as the Blast Gauge System was meant for deployment in military applications, including use by SWAT teams and special forces. Using similar measurement technology (like precision gyroscopes, accelerometers, magnetometers, and pressure sensors), the BGS can transmit immediate data about the nature of the injury to medical personnel, who can respond faster and more accurately.
Measurement tech is important because it’s hard to gauge the severity of an injury after it’s already occurred. We have to rely on eyewitness accounts, and descriptions from the victim (who may or may not be conscious or able to articulate what happened). Knowing precisely what level of force caused the injury, and how the injury occurred can help medical staff treat these injuries faster and more appropriately.
Big Data and Evaluation
All these sophisticated measurement devices lead perfectly into another realm of technology improving our understanding of TBIs; big data analysis. TBIs have been described as the “most complex disease of the most complex organ” of the body. The brain is staggeringly complicated, with more than 200 billion neurons and complex relationships with most of the other systems in our body. Because TBIs vary so significantly in terms of force, duration, and type, and individuals respond so differently to this trauma, it’s nearly impossible to come up with a one-size-fits-all treatment plan.
Fortunately, medical professionals are making greater efforts to collect as much data as possible on these injuries, including treatment plans and rates of recovery. On an individual basis, these data can’t help much, but when analyzed on a large enough scale, patterns start to emerge, and we can start forming better conclusions about the nature of TBIs (including the best methods to treat them).
Toward a New Era
TBIs are hard to prevent, since most of them occur purely accidentally, or as the result of daily activities like driving or playing sports. But the more we understand them, and the faster we can respond to them, the more TBI-related deaths we can prevent. Our new tech to measure the occurrence of TBIs on both an individual and population scale is just the first step in our journey to tech-assisted medical understanding; in just a decade, we may understand the nature of brain injuries more than anyone could have predicted.