Two University of Oklahoma researchers have developed a way to measure brain function in troops going to war, giving doctors baseline data to help diagnose and treat the soldiers if they suffer traumatic brain injuries. In the past three months, more than 13,000 soldiers have participated in tests conducted at five bases around the world, including 2,500 members of the Oklahoma Army National Guard who form the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. The test protocol was developed by Robert Schlegel, an industrial engineering professor, and Kirby Gilliland, a psychology professor. Both are directors of the Center for the Study of Human Operator Performance at OU. The troops line up at laptop computers to take a 15-minute test of basic math, matching numbers and symbols and identifying patterns. The results measure reaction time, short-term memory and other cognitive skills that will be used as a comparison for returning or injured soldiers who may suffer mild brain trauma that otherwise could go unnoticed and untreated. "These are the people that will be most at risk in the very near future,” Gilliland said. "The soldiers have been very cooperative.” Brain injuries have become the signature injury in Iraq, caused by skull-penetrating bomb shrapnel, impact trauma from vehicle accidents or falls, and percussion or blast injuries from nearby explosions, Gilliland said.
Hidden traumaSome soldiers walk away from explosions with no obvious injuries, but the concussion can have a lingering effect. "A lot of time, there are no outward signs,” Schlegel said. "There's no bleeding and the only indication is if the soldier or his buddies say this guy is just not acting right. A lot of these injuries are similar to a football concussion.” Most brain injuries are mild, and soldiers can recover with rest and time away from the battlefield. But the military estimates that one-fifth of the troops with these mild injuries will have prolonged or lifelong symptoms requiring continuing care. Thirty percent of soldiers taken to Walter Reed Army Medical Center since 2003 suffered traumatic brain injuries, according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. The brain injury center, which has seven facilities around the country, has seen 2,669 patients between 2003 and 2007. But doctors believe many less obvious brain injury cases go undetected. Funds for the testing project come from the Office of the Surgeon General of the Army and a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense. Contributing: The Associated Press
Why are blast injuries an issue now?America's armed forces are enduring attacks by rocket-propelled grenades, improvised explosive devices and land mines. Troops injured in these attacks require specialized care from providers experienced in treating traumatic brain injury.
What symptoms may indicate an injury?Post concussion complaints include decreased memory, poor concentration, headaches, slower thinking, irritability and depression.