Protecting Super Soldiers from blast pressure injury

Elizabeth Howe
September 13, 2018 - 6:39 pm

Photo courtesy of Capt. Joseph Legros

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The Army is conducting research to build 'super soldiers,' and — while Iron Man body armor would be awesome — a big part of ensuring American soldiers can perform safely and effectively starts with the head.

The Super Soldier Series, funded by the Army Research Laboratory and conducted by the Center for a New American Security, ultimately aims to increase survivability of dismounted soldiers by focusing on the vulnerabilities and inefficiencies of current Army gear.

“They asked us to do what I would describe as a technology horizon scanning effort — looking at a range of emerging technologies and ways they might improve service member protection,” said Paul Scharre, senior fellow and director of the Technology and National Security Program. “So we looked at a whole range of things.”

One of the research areas that came from this horizon scan is technologies that could mitigate the effects of blast injury.

“Thousands are killed and tens of thousands are wounded, but what often gets lots in the accounting is the hundreds of thousands of veterans from current wars who have been wounded through traumatic brain injury,” Scharre said. “So that’s part of what we decided to look at — protecting people not just from body wounds but from wounds to the brain.”

The current design of the Army’s helmets do a great job of protecting from a lot of the hazards that are part of combat zones — impact injuries and penetration injuries. But little research has been conducted and few design elements have been implemented to protect from blast injury.

Photo courtesy of CNAS

“It’s the injury that comes from the blast pressure wave itself as it transits through the body and skull into the brain,” Scharre explained. “There’s a growing awareness about these effects — the DOD has some very recent research showing cognitive deficits in service members who’ve been exposed to relatively low levels of blast pressure. It’s particularly significant because it shows a measurable cognitive deficit that comes from exposure to low level blast waves, but also, it occurs during training, not necessarily in combat zones.”

While there are a lot that scientists don’t know about the effects and impact of blast pressure injuries, Scharre and the Super Soldiers project know this is no reason not to start making changes.

“We’re in an interesting place where there’s much more that needs to be done to understand how blast pressures affect the brain, and there’s a lot that we don’t know,” Scharre said. “But we do know enough to be concerned and to take some immediate steps to mitigate some of these exposures.”

The full report, written by Scharre and Lauren Fish, outlines those immediate steps. Helmets can be redesigned to shield soldiers more effectively from blast pressure waves, and the number of damaging rounds soldiers fire during training can be limited. These suggested changes, backed up by Scharre’s and Fish’s research, made it into this year’s NDAA to be implemented.

“It was very exciting to see many of those recommendations make it into the most recent NDAA which is now written into law for the DOD to respond and make changes,” said Scharre.

Read about similar research on military brain injury here.

The work is far from over, however. CNAS wants to continue researching the effects of blast pressure injuries. They hope to use recording gauges and further research to prove that these types of injuries can and have led to traumatic brain injury — a concept that the VA currently rejects.

“I have spoken with veterans who were exposed to some of these weapons repetitively in training and are now experiencing symptoms of TBI, but they’re not able to get care through the VA because the VA doesn’t recognize this as a condition,” said Scharre. “It’s really unfortunate, and it needs to change.”

 

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