A TBI Yardstick

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Georgia Tech / Gary Meek

Components of the vest-like Integrated Blast Effect Sensor Suite designed to measure the impact of explosions on troops.

Waging and preventing war are the foundations of national security. Innovative companies across the country are working on products for tomorrow’s fight. Here is Battleland’s continuing look at what looms on technology’s horizon.

The Challenge

Explosions are a part of war. Rockets, bombs, mortars, wall charges – they punctuate day-to-day life in combat operations. And they aren’t alone: Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) have been the scourge of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their tactical success has led to their adoption by many terrorist and insurgent organizations, and shows no sign of going away. Unfortunately, we don’t really know what this does to our troops. The effect of concussive blasts are studied months or years after the fact, if at all. No longitudinal study of mental health has ever been conducted. As a result we can’t say what level of pressure or frequency of events causes traumatic brain injuries. Right now we don’t even have a practical way of outfitting people to measure blasts. Our military and Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals diligently treat patients, but their efforts hold little promise for a breakthrough without more information about the mechanism of injury.

The Stopgap

Several defense organizations are working on the measurement problems, while the VA researches new methods for diagnosing and treating the injury. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency fielded sensors (called Blast Gauges) to several units in the Army in conjunction with the Rapid Equipping Force. Worn outside the Kevlar helmet, these sensors collect data during explosions, “tag” the data to the person, and store it for future use. Successful deployment led to the next version, called the Integrated Blast Effects Sensor Suite. This vest is worn outside body armor and gathers more information for researchers later on. On the treatment side, the VA has helped pioneer and test the use of a method called Deep Brain Stimulation. Traditionally used for Parkinson’s Disease — with significant success — it now being considered for troops who have sustained traumatic brain injuries.

The Solution

The military is starting to get soldier feedback and blast data from these sensors. This needs to be quickly turned into a contract for producing a rugged, lightweight, low-energy version for wide-scale adoption. The key is getting something that soldiers will not reject because of weight or fit. Additionally, the Defense Department needs to transition – as the VA did – to electronic health records. Nothing else will provide the platform needed to collect and analyze large amounts of data; at least not if the analysis is supposed to help provide better care based on an individual’s service history. Service members need to be able to easily manage their own health record, which includes transitioning relevant information to the VA smoothly after service. That would remove major impediments to preventive care, not to mention provide valuable data to medical researchers.


Fair. Collaborating across agencies is always difficult. DARPA has had challenges getting folks in the military interested in its programs, although the Rapid Equipping Force helped transition these sensors to a funded program. The Pentagon and VA are not exactly known for playing nice, however, so transitioning data to effective medical care is the real challenge. It is likely that some parts of the puzzle will be solved, but an cradle-to-grave solution for the individual soldier may be a bridge too far.

William Treseder writes about technologies and policies related to national security. He deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan as a United States Marine. William is currently Head of Technology Assessment for BMNT Partners, a Silicon Valley technology advisory firm.