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Brain damage caused by blast waves-new research can improve helmet design

New research on the effects of blast waves could lead to an enhanced understanding of head injuries, brain damage and improved military helmet design.

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory have determined that blast waves generate enough force to cause brain deformations even without direct contact with the skull and without a skull fracture.

In contrast to injuries to the brain caused by the movement of the brain within the skull cavity, the researchers found that blast waves cause pressure changes within the brain resulting in the squeezing of the brain.  The forces required to cause brain damage are much less than those required to cause a traumatic brain injury from direct impact.

Amazingly, although the skull is deformed in the injury process a distance of about 50 microns, which is the width of a human hair, this is enough deformation to cause brain injury.

Because blast waves and direct impact affect the head in fundamentally different ways, helmets that  are designed to protect soldiers from impacts and projectiles may not be optimal for blast wave protection.

The team studied how helmets and their suspension systems influence the blast-induced mechanical loads in the brain.  What they found was that the gaps within the helmet and between the cushioning within the helmet, allow brain waves to “wash” under the helmet and cause damage to the brain from within the interior of the helmet.

Work is now being undertaken to redesign helmets to minimize the risk of blast injury.

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