New Research Offers Hope for Soldiers With Brain Injuries

Harvard researchers discover mysteries behind the brain

For the first time since military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan began using makeshift bombs, there is new research that offers hope for U.S. soldiers wounded by explosions.

Bioengineers at Harvard University can now explain how the blast of an exploding bomb can result in disastrous injuries in the nerve cells and blood vessels of the brain.

Researchers discovered this week that if a soldier is near a bomb when it explodes, it sets off a chain reaction of destructive molecular signals within the nerve cells of the brain.

The result, if the patient survives, can be a temporary concussion that leads to a more dangerous hemorrhage or long-term traumatic brain injury ending in the early onset of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s diseases.

"The force of the bomb basically disconnects the neurons from each other and collapses the cellular networks that constitute the brain," according to the new report.

The research began at Harvard because blast-induced traumatic brain injury is now the most prevalent military injury in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Biologists, physicists, engineers, and materials scientists have been collaborating on the study of brain injury and future treatment.

Harvard researchers say when the brain encounters a jarring force, such as an exploding roadside bomb, its delicate tissue slams against the skull.

The blast from the explosion creates a surge in blood pressure, which stretches the walls of the blood vessels in the brain.

“These results have been a long time coming,” said lead investigator Kevin Kit Parker, a professor of bioengineering at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a major in the U.S. Army.

“So many young men and women are returning from military service with brain injuries, and we just don’t know how to help them.”

The research at Harvard is the first of its kind as it addresses two major aspects of traumatic brain injury calling for new medical treatment of soldiers wounded by explosions.

Researchers say little is known about the mechanical effects of blasts on the human head. Even less is known about how personal protective equipment affects the brain’s response to blasts.

The U.S. Department of Defense estimates 130,000 service members deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have sustained a traumatic brain injury while deployed.

Officials say improvised explosive devices (IED) are being used in warfare causing 64 percent of the deaths in Iraq and 66 percent in Afghanistan, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

“We have established a toe-hold as we try to climb up on top of this problem,“ Parker said. “In many ways, this work is just the beginning.”

A second direction of research in Parker’s lab has solved another mystery in brain injuries. During the blast the brain’s blood vessels are “rearranged” causing even more brain damage.

“Our research has shown that abrupt mechanical forces, such as those from a blast wave, affect a protein that links the outside of a cell with its interior and can result in neural injury,” said Matthew A. Hemphill, one of the Harvard researchers.

“Encouragingly, we also found that treating the neural tissue with HA-1077, which is a ROCK inhibitor, within the first 10 minutes of injury, reduced the number of focal swellings."

Researchers now believe that further study of ROCK inhibition, which is basically a cellular protein being used for cardiovascular disease, could lead to viable treatments of brain injuries within the near future.

Did you know?

About 303 times as many people have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq than in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

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