11.7.09

combat blasts

Much of the invisible blast waves from roadside bombs, grenades, and other high impact events have been found to cause concussive brain trauma [without skull fracture] that may result in amnesia, depression, loss of balance, and early onset dementia. Subsequently, an estimated 320,000 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have experienced some form of traumatic brain injury during their service. (1) These injuries are so worrisome because of the lack of clear physical impact: extreme air pressure will often create sudden pressure variations to the brain tissue, possibly leading to the development of toxic protein deposits and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain. This disease is not uncommon in veteran football players and boxers with links to cognitive decline, though unfortunately, these tangles, which are identical in persons with Alzheimer’s, can only be detected through a post-mortem autopsy and cannot be verified until doctors have access to the brain.

Though many of the effects of blast injuries are still unknown, research is underway to find out exactly what the long-term conclusions can lead to. Soldiers deployed to battlefields are being issued sensors attached to their helmets that capture data generated by an actual explosive event and the acceleration or jolt the soldier is subjected to. (2) These findings are expected to help the Army improve helmet designs and other protective gear, as well as to use impact data to treat traumatic brain injuries. Yet while the increase in effective body armor has substantially decreased fatalities, lower mortality rates have accompanied an unprecedented rise in brain damage, and many are calling for a complete overhaul in the design of improved capable equipment and efficient strategies for diagnoses.

In fact, both the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and the Sports Legacy Institute are conducting studies that compare the brains of military personnel and athletes, signing up more than one hundred volunteer brain donors, and paying for the registry, storage, and examination of brain tissue with virtually no funds from the military. Moreover, non-profit organizations like “Operation-Helmet,” based in Montgomery, Texas, have raised enough contributions to send almost 45,000 helmet upgrades to soldiers in combat overseas. (3)

The debilitating, costly, and long-lasting repercussions of blast waves on the brain are both real and dangerous, and have wide implications for civilians as well. With the increase of terrorist and guerrilla combat techniques, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are becoming prevalent on battlefields, leading to the occurrence of far more cases of traumatic brain damage. An effective alternative to the slaughter of human bystanders is the thousands of military robots that have been deployed to substitute for the men and women of the armed forces. One of these bots, the Multi-function Agile Remote Controlled Robot (MARCbot), allows soldiers to avoid personal risk and physical harm while observing, detecting, identifying, and neutralizing possible threats. What’s more, the U.S. Army has actually awarded Massachusetts-based iRobot Corp an indefinite delivery/quantity contract for IED threat disposal technologies, with the hopes to reduce as many casualties and cases as possible. (4)


1) Schwarz, Alan “A Chance for Clues to Brain Injury in Combat Blasts” New York Times. June 22, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/23/health/23brai.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&ref=research
2) Miles, Donna “New Helmet Sensors to Measure Blast Impact.” DefenseLink. January 7, 2008 http://www.defenselink.mil/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=48590
3) Operation-Helmet “Our Warriors Ask for your Help” http://www.operation-helmet.org/
4) Security Industry “Army orders more robots for IED disposal” United Press International. February 3, 2009 http://www.upi.com/Security_Industry/2009/02/03/Army-orders-more-robots-for-IED-disposal/UPI-45531233679462/

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