There is no good way to diagnose the damage caused by a traumatic brain injury (TBI), which makes the condition even harder to treat. But an experimental tool that reveals the inner workings of the brain much like an X-ray shows broken bones, may one day offer doctors the ability to pinpoint injuries and guide rehabilitation.
Research is currently underway in civilian and military patients on an MRI-based test that can help reveal these previously invisible wounds. Not knowing the extent of damage creates frustration for both patients and doctors.
TBIs happen when a bump, blow, jolt or other head injury causes damage to the brain. Soldiers in wartime, car accident survivors, even athletes suffer from TBIs. About 1.7 million people suffer from TBIs in America each year. Some are debilitating and require surgery or medical intervention. Others are concussions or milder injuries that generally heal on their own. Even milder TBIs can leave patients with symptoms including memory loss and mood swings. Though, when these patients’ CT scans are viewed, they may show no injury at all.
At best, scans can show bruising or swelling, but not offer any clues as to what connections in the brain may have been damaged or destroyed by the injury. For doctors, it’s hard to treat what can’t be seen.
New options for diagnosing TBI include a type of high-definition fiber tracking. This device has a high powered MRI and uses a special computer program to map major fiber tracks in the white matter of the brain. These light up in vivid colors depending on their function. Researchers look for breaks in these fibers that could slow or stop nerve connections from doing their assigned job.
This innovative new tool has helped doctors see brain injuries in a new light. For example, broken communications fibers in certain areas of the brain can tell doctors that a patient may have limited motion on his left side or be unable to move his hand.
The new tool will be used on soldiers with TBIs at Walter Reed to determine if its findings correlate with the injuries and recoveries of patients. It’s work researchers say may take years to prove.