Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and University of Ottawa in Canada developed a technique that combines computer modeling and imaging to calcuate damage capable of causing head trauma and concussion. The team led by Johns Hopkins engineering professor K.T. Ramesh published its findings in a recent issue of the Journal of Neurotrauma (paid subscription required).
Many head injuries are caused by abrupt rotational movements resulting from extreme forces like collisions or explosions, which may not generate any visible damage, such as broken skin. In addition, some head injuries are difficult to diagnose with standard imaging techniques and may go unnoticed as a result.
“Think about a soldier who is knocked down by the blast wave of an explosion, or a football player reeling after a major collision,” says Ramesh. “The person may show some loss of cognitive function, but you may not immediately see anything in a CT-scan or MRI that tells you exactly where and how much damage has been done to the brain.”
Ramesh and colleagues devised a technique that combines a type of MRI called diffusion tensor imaging with a computer model of the head to estimate damage to axons, which are fibers that transmit signals from one neuron to another. Diffusion tensor imaging tracks the movement of water molecules in the brain, that tend to travel along the axons. Axons are protected by a white, fatty substance called myelin, and the network of axons in the brain are often referred to as “white matter.”
Axons can suffer damage when the head suffers severe rotations. The technique developed by Ramesh’s team calculates the parts of the brain most likely to suffer injury to axons during specific events. The researchers applied the technique to diffuse axonal injuries from a real-life hockey collision that resulted in a concussion. They were able to validate the model from accident reconstructions, showing rotational head accelerations associated with most head injuries and consistent with previous studies.
The authors believe the technique could lead to new treatments and some sports rule changes to reduce brain trauma among players. However, more research, testing, and validation with athletes and soldiers are needed before clinical applications can be derived.
“We would then be able to track a high-risk population and keep records detailing what types of head injuries they experience,” explains Ramesh. “Then, we could look at how their brains may have changed since the original images were collected. This will also help guide the physicians and health professionals who provide treatment after critical events.”
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