Mild brain injury tracked using special MRI technique

According to a new study there may be an explanation of why some military personnel exposed to blasts have symptoms of brain injury even though their CT and MRI scans look normal.

The researchers used a highly sensitive type of magnetic resonance imaging and studied 63 servicemen wounded by explosions in Iraq or Afghanistan and found evidence of brain injuries in some that were too subtle to be detected by standard scans. All the men already had a diagnosis of mild traumatic brain injury (synonymous with concussion), based on symptoms like having lost consciousness in the blast, having no memory of it or feeling dazed immediately afterward.

For this study Dr. Brody and others from Washington University came together with military researchers at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, to which troops injured in Iraq and Afghanistan are evacuated for treatment.

For the study they performed the diffusion tensor imaging on 63 men who had recently sustained mild traumatic brain injuries from blasts; all but one had normal results on a standard M.R.I. For comparison, 21 control subjects were also scanned — men exposed to blasts recently but with no symptoms of concussion. Eighteen of the 63 men with traumatic brain injury had abnormalities consistent with nerve injury in two or more brain regions, areas not usually damaged by other types of mild head injury. The researchers said that only 2 of 63 healthy subjects would be expected to have such abnormalities. Twenty other men with traumatic brain injury had abnormalities in one area, and 25 had none.

Nearly 320,000 American troops have sustained traumatic brain injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of them mild, according to a 2008 report by the RAND Corporation. The injuries are poorly understood, and sometimes produce lasting mental, physical and emotional problems.

Dr. David L. Brody, an author of the new study and an assistant professor of neurology at Washington University in St. Louis said, “This sort of mild traumatic brain injury has been quite controversial…Is it due to structural abnormalities in the brain, chemical dysregulation, psychological factors or all three? We show that at least in some there are structural abnormalities.” He explained that the pattern of the damage differed from that found in head injuries not caused by blasts, and matched computer simulations predicting how explosions would affect the brain. If the new findings hold up, he added, they may eventually influence the design of helmets to provide more protection against blasts. But Dr. Brody and other researchers cautioned that the study was only “a small first step.” The study and an accompanying editorial were published online on Wednesday by The New England Journal of Medicine.

This special M.R.I. technique, known as diffusion tensor imaging, is also being studied to help improve the diagnosis of concussions. It can be performed by most M.R.I. machines and does not take longer or cost more than a standard M.R.I. The test measures the movement of water in nerve fibers in the brain; abnormal flow may indicate injury. Changes can be detected in bundles of thousands of axons, the fibers that carry signals.

Dr. Allan H. Ropper, the executive vice chairman of neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who wrote the editorial said, “It’s never been clear that a blast alone could cause brain damage without some kind of impact on the head, so it’s a very important finding that there may be a structural brain representation of a blast injury.” Katherine Helmick, deputy director for traumatic brain injury at the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury added that the Defense Department was eager for information that would “help us understand what blast is doing to the brain, and help us get what we really want in diagnosing traumatic brain injury, which is objective markers.”

Christine L. MacDonald, a research instructor in neurology at Washington University and another author of the study, said the scans were still a research tool and not ready for widespread use. Researchers are trying to perfect the technique as quickly as possible for use in the care of wounded service members.

“Our hope is that these advanced MRI-based methods will one day help make more accurate diagnoses, assist with triage and allow treatment interventions to start early for people with traumatic brain injuries,” Brody said.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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