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Preventing Brain Injury in Soldiers

Professors Develop Helmet Sensors

A new optical sensor network being developed by UMass Lowell researchers will ultimately help improve soldiers’ helmets.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Traumatic brain injury, or TBI, is just one of the many dangers facing American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. It can occur when the head is struck suddenly and violently by the blast from an artillery shell or roadside bomb.

A team of UMass Lowell researchers hopes to better protect soldiers’ heads.

Prof. Xingwei Wang of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, and Profs. Christopher Niezrecki and Julie Chen of the Mechanical Engineering Department recently received a one-year $30,000 grant from Raytheon Co. to develop a novel optical pressure-sensor network for evaluating the structural design of soldiers’ helmets.

“This monitoring system, based on the Fabry-Perot principle, will study the effects of blasts on the helmet or skull,” says Wang. “The data collected will be used to evaluate, and therefore improve, helmet design to better protect soldiers from traumatic brain injury.”

Moderate to severe TBI can cause a host of neurological problems, including headaches, confusion, slurred speech, memory loss, convulsions or seizures, loss of coordination and coma.

The researchers’ sensors can be mounted on the outside and inside surfaces of the helmet as well as on top of the skull to understand the propagation of the shock wave and its effects on the helmet and brain. Lab tests performed at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center have shown that the new sensors have very good static and dynamic responses compared to commercially available electrical and acoustic pressure sensors.

“The uniqueness of our optical sensors is their fast response time ߞ; 0.4 millionth of a second,” Wang says. “They may be able to record the peak intensity and complete profile of the fast-changing blast signal, which may then be directly correlated to the severity of the brain injury.”

According to a recent report prepared by the Congressional Research Service, of the 178,876 total TBI cases recorded by the military from 2000 to the first quarter of 2010, 137,328 have been diagnosed as mild, 30,893 as moderate, 1,891 as severe, 3,175 as open head wounds and 5,589 as non-classifiable.

Wang says with modifications, the sensors can also be used to evaluate helmets in sports, especially for football and hockey players, as well as for race car drivers who are prone to repeated head trauma and concussions.

The sensors will study the effects of artillery or roadside-bomb blasts on the helmet and brain.