New technology could help diagnose traumatic brain injuries

A new device developed by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley could prove to be an important, inexpensive tool to help doctors and first responders diagnose serious traumatic brain injuries.

Researchers at UC Berkeley reported the development of their device and the results of initial tests in a recent issue of the journal PLOS One. The device uses low energy electromagnetic waves, similar to those used to transmit wireless signals, to analyze a patient’s brain tissue to detect swelling or bleeding. The device is made up of two coils: one that acts as a signal emitter and one that acts as a receiver.

When brain tissue is damaged, swelling occurs because of a buildup of fluids. Similarly, internal bleeding can cause blood to collect in certain areas of the brain. Liquids conduct electricity in a different way than brain tissue and the new device measures this difference. The electromagnetic signal passes through healthy brain tissue uninterrupted, but the presence of fluid causes a disruption. A special algorithm is then used to calculate the probability of injury.

Researchers believe that this device shows most promise for first responders who are not close enough to a hospital to allow for more traditional tests. Specifically, they believe that military medics may find the use of the device most helpful.

Study proves accuracy

To test the device, the development team traveled to Mexico, where they worked with a team from the Mexican Army. The group tested their prototype on patients who had been admitted to a military hospital. Some of the patients participating in the study had suffered traumatic brain injuries, while others had been admitted to the hospital for other reasons. In all, the study involved 46 healthy adults and eight with some form of brain injury.

Researchers discovered that their device allowed them to clearly differentiate between healthy brain tissue and damaged brain tissue. Computerized tomography scans confirmed their findings.

In cases of traumatic brain injury – even when an injury does not appear to be particularly serious – time is of the essence. If swelling or bleeding is allowed to proceed unchecked, it can cause severe damage or even death. The ability to diagnose a brain injury and administer proper treatment in a timely manner is essential both to saving lives and preventing further injury. Only time will tell whether this device will become widely used, but it may well become an important tool for paramedics and military medics alike.