WSU researcher receives Department of Defense award to develop computer model of mild traumatic brain injury

DETROIT - Liying Zhang, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering in WSU's College of Engineering and resident of Troy, Mich., received a $214,306 award from the U.S. Department of Defense to develop a computer simulation tool that accurately models mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the human head.

Blast injuries caused by improvised explosive devices make up about 80 percent of injuries to U.S. troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and have earned the title ‘the signature injury' of these wars. Soldiers often experience symptoms of mild TBI after exposure to only blast waves - the high amplitude pressure waves emitted from an explosive - even while they are out of range of the bomb's wind, shrapnel and fireball. Symptoms of mild TBI include memory loss, confusion, speech problems, difficulty with decision making, headaches, poor attention and loss of concentration.

Zhang is part of a distinguished group of researchers investigating the effects of blast waves on the human head and brain in the effort to uncover how TBI is caused and how it can be prevented. Zhang is using a "finite element" computer model of the human head she created to understand underlying damaging pathways of pressure waves as they travel through the skull and different tissues in the brain.

It has been postulated that mild TBI occurs because blast waves travel unevenly through different brain tissues, leading to stress concentrations in certain areas of the brain. Understanding these concentrations will help Zhang locate the first point of injury when a blast wave hits, as well as the location and type of other injuries that follow. This knowledge will be instrumental in designing helmets to prevent mild TBI from happening.

"Our goal is to create a model of blast injury that can predict initial brain damage and subsequent cellular damage and apply the knowledge to improving the design of protective devices," Zhang said. "Ultimately, we'd like to find a way to prevent these injuries from happening. Prevention is always better than treatment, when it's possible."

Another goal of the research is to determine the threshold of overpressure at which injury first appears in the human brain. From there, Zhang's lab will establish a dose-effect relationship - or the degree of injury caused by overpressure of varied intensities and duration. This information can be used to assess the risk level for brain injury on the battlefield based on the amount of overpressure to which soldiers are being exposed.

It is hoped that this proactive approach to mild traumatic brain injury, in both preventative measures and risk assessment will, in the future, relieve soldiers from one of the damaging results of modern day war. "The long-term effects of traumatic brain injury are devastating, and even mild TBI has long-term, life-altering consequences," Zhang said. "We'd like to be part of the solution that will lift some of the grief, both financially and emotionally, that TBI puts on both families and society."

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