NPR logo Helmet Face Shields Could Prevent Military Brain Injuries


Helmet Face Shields Could Prevent Military Brain Injuries

Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI, has been called the signature injury of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. About 130,000 men and women have come home from their deployments with TBI, and getting treatment for brain injuries, as NPR's Daniel Zwerdling has reported, is difficult. One way these injuries happen is when shock waves from bombs pass through helmets and through the brain.

In models that simulate blasts, Radovitzky and his colleagues analyze different parts of the brain. Michelle Nyein hide caption

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Michelle Nyein

Today a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that it might be possible to reduce TBI by changing the design of the helmets that soldiers wear.

The study was done at MIT's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies by Raul Radovitzky, who realized several years ago that very little is known about how blast waves interact with brain tissue as they move through protective gear. So Radovitzky developed a series of computer models. What he found was that pressure waves from an explosion tend to be transmitted to the brain through the face.

The computer models suggested that adding face shields could really help things. Radovitsky and his crew are doing more studies which will look at different blast angles and intensities.

The Department of Defense has said that the Advanced Combat Helmet in use today is very good at protecting soldiers from blunt impacts and flying fragments. But some scientists have suggested that the helmets could actually be hurting soldiers who endure blasts from IEDs and other bombs.

"The existing Advanced Combat Helmet... does not worsen the negative effects of a blast wave - does not enhance the energy of the blast - as has been previously suggested," Radovitzky told BBC News. "But we also find that it doesn't really help much; it doesn't mitigate the blast wave significantly."

The improvement Radovitzky has in mind is a face shield made of polycarbonate, a type of transparent, dense plastic similar also used in the face shields worn by most motorcyclists.

Changing the design of helmets worn by hundreds of thousands of soldiers won't happen overnight, though. And like so many new proposals, more research is needed to determine whether face shields will really work.