WASHINGTON (AP) — The soldier on the fringes of an explosion. The survivor of a car wreck. An employee seeking disability insurance benefits after suffering a severe concussion. Too often, only time can tell when a traumatic brain injury will leave lasting harm — there’s no good way to diagnose the damage.
Now scientists are testing a tool that lights up the breaks these injuries leave deep in the brain’s wiring, much like X-rays show broken bones.
Research is just beginning in civilian and military patients to learn if this new kind of MRI-based test really could pinpoint their injuries and one day guide rehabilitation. It’s an example of the hunt for better brain scans, maybe even a blood test, to finally tell when a blow to the head causes damage that today’s standard testing simply can’t see.
“We now have, for the first time, the ability to make visible these previously invisible wounds,” says Walter Schneider of the University of Pittsburgh, who is leading development of the experimental scan. “If you cannot see or quantify the damage, it is hard to treat it.”
About 1.7 million people suffer a traumatic brain injury, or TBI, in the U.S. each year. Some survivors suffer obvious disability, but most TBIs are concussions or other milder injuries that generally heal on their own. TBI also is a signature injury of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, affecting more than 200,000 soldiers by military estimates.
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Not being able to see underlying damage leads to frustration for patients and doctors alike, says Dr. Walter Koroshetz, deputy director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Some people experience memory loss, mood changes or other problems after what was deemed a mild concussion, only to have CT scans indicate nothing’s wrong.
Repeated concussions raise the risk of developing permanent neurologic problems later in life, a concern highlighted when some retired football players sued the National Football League. But Koroshetz says there’s no way to tell how much damage someone is accumulating, if the next blow “is really going to cause big trouble.”
And with more serious head injuries, standard scans cannot see beyond bleeding or swelling to tell if the brain’s connections are broken in a way it can’t repair on its own.
“You can have a patient with severe swelling who goes on to have a normal recovery, and patients with severe swelling who go on to die,” says Dr. David Okonkwo, a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center neurosurgeon who is part of the research. Current testing “doesn’t tell you what the consequence of that head injury is going to be.”
Hence the increasing research into new options for diagnosing TBI. In a report published Friday in the Journal of Neurosurgery, Schneider’s team describes one potential candidate, called high-definition fiber tracking.
Brain cells communicate with each other through a system of axons, or nerve fibers, that acts like a telephone network. They make up what’s called the white matter of the brain, and run along fiber tracts, cable-like highways containing millions of connections.