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New technology offers breakthrough in brain injury diagnosis

Posted on in Catastrophic Injuries

If you break an arm or a leg in an accident, it takes little more than an X-ray to determine that injury before you're fitted for a cast and sent on your way out the hospital doors. Your bill may be high, but your injury is easily sized up and itemized.

This is almost never the case with a brain injury. It usually takes a lot of time and a battery of tests to even begin to pinpoint how your brain is affected by a collision with a windshield or a sidewalk. Our brains are so complex that almost no two injuries are alike, which can also make treatment a guessing game.

But a new tool aims to change that. Scientists are researching whether this MRI-based test can accurately diagnose a head injury and improve rehabilitation.

About 1.7 million people suffer a traumatic brain injury in the United States every year. Many injuries are obvious immediately after they happen and the resulting disabilities are clear. But most TBIs are concussions or mild injuries that are left to heal on their own. For those sufferers and their doctors, not being able to see or quantify the damage is beyond frustrating. Brain injury victims with no visible damage on their CT scans can experience memory loss, mood swings and other problems that affect their work, relationships and everyday functions. Two patients with the same amount of brain swelling can have opposite recoveries, and neurologists are at a loss to explain why.

The new technology is called high definition fiber tracking. It maps nerve fiber tracts, which are the millions of cable-like connections that make up the white matter of the brain. The map paints these tracts in different colors to designate their different functions. Researchers look for breaks in the fibers that could slow or stop the nerve connections from doing their jobs. The new technology offers a much more defined picture of the brain than what's now widely available. "It's like comparing your fuzzy-screen black-and-white TV with a high-definition TV," said one neurosurgeon.

Of course, an accurate diagnosis doesn't always mean the injury can be healed. Prevention against head injuries is still the best medicine. But these new developments could have a significant impact on helping patients heal after an injury beyond their control.

Source: Airforce Times, "Researchers test new tool for identifying TBI," Lauran Neergaard, March 2, 2012

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