New techniques developed at the University of Pittsburgh that provide detailed images of the brain's fiber network to better detect head injuries are among the many advances that are helping to improve treatment for troops wounded in battle.
More than 51,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have suffered wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many who in earlier wars would have died are living productive lives because health care has greatly improved, especially for traumatic injuries, said Rear Adm. Bruce Doll, the Navy's Deputy Chief for Medical Research.
"If you suffered an accident, the best place to get emergency care is Kandahar, Afghanistan," he said Friday at a Veterans Day symposium at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, sponsored by Pitt's Center for Military Medicine Research.
Traumatic brain injury, typically from an explosion, is the most common serious wound, said David Okonkwo, clinical director of the Brain Trauma Research Center at Pitt. These brain injuries account for half of all trauma deaths, he said.
Explosions have caused 81 percent of the casualties suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Rocky Tuan, founding director of the Center for Military Medicine Research and associate director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Pitt.
Earlier this year in a study published in the Journal of Neurosurgery, Pitt researchers demonstrated a new imaging technique called high-definition fiber tracking that allows doctors to see neural connections broken by traumatic brain injury and other neurological disorders.
Arthur S. Levine, senior vice chancellor for health sciences at Pitt, announced at Friday's symposium that the U.S. Defense Department has awarded two grants totaling $5.4 million to the School of Medicine for further testing and development of this technique.
Most brain injuries are concussions, which involve damage not to the portions of the brain that send signals to the body, but to the brain fiber tracts, the neuronal cables through which those messages are sent. Damage to these neuronal cables usually aren't detected by CT scans, MRIs and other standard scans.
Researchers at the Pitt's Learning Research and Development Center figured out a way to "map" all those fiber tracts so physicians can determine quickly which have been damaged and how badly they have been damaged. Dr. Okonkwo demonstrated at Friday's session how -- with an iPhone and an iPad -- a patient who's suffered a traumatic brain injury can be shown where his wound is and told how likely, and to what extent, he will recover.
About 3.8 million Americans suffer concussions each year, Dr. Okonkwo said. The benefits of this mapping will extend to people far beyond the battlefield.
Walter Schneider, senior scientist at Pitt's Learning Research and Development Center, said with the help of the Defense Department grant, he hopes high-definition fiber tracking will be ready for widespread use soon.
The technique is just a diagnostic tool. But the first step in finding a cure is accurate diagnosis, said Mr. Schneider, who has a doctorate degree in psychology.
"You can't fix what's wrong until you know what's wrong," he said.
The Center for Military Medicine Research also is exploring better ways to treat fractures and to restore form and function through tissue regeneration.
Pitt announced the establishment of the Center for Military Medicine Research in June. The executive director is retired Army Col. Ronald Poropatich, a Pittsburgh native.
"At the center, every day is Veterans Day," he said.
Jack Kelly: email@example.com or 412-263-1476. First Published November 12, 2012 5:00 AM