Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are a still-poorly understood phenomenon that can have serious implications on a person’s physical and mental wellbeing. And until recently, we’ve had trouble identifying and categorizing them.
Though there’s still much to discover about the nature of TBIs, including how they form and how they can be treated, researchers, doctors, and engineers have come up with new diagnostic tools that can improve how we think about and deal with TBIs.
How TBIs Work
TBIs are any kind of violent injury to the head, or sometimes the body. They come in many forms, including a direct impact when the head collides with something, or a penetration, when something sharp penetrates the skull and brain. They range from mild to serious, resulting in both short-term and long-term damage, and can be cumulative in nature; in other words, getting more TBIs later in life can accelerate and complicate the damage you’ve already sustained.
A mild TBI may result in a loss of consciousness, being dazed or disoriented, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, problems with sleep, a loss of balance, and difficulty sleeping (or sleeping more than usual). This complex set of sometimes contradictory symptoms can be hard to identify.
TBIs can also result in psychiatric complications. After a TBI, a patient may experience more memory and complication problems, or may experience mood changes and mood swings. The onset of anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders is also common.
Why Diagnosis Is So Difficult
So why has diagnosis of TBIs historically been so difficult?
- Lack of understanding. Medical professionals still don’t fully understand the nature of TBIs. The same type of impact or injury may affect two people in completely different ways, and the underlying mechanisms driving the symptoms of TBIs aren’t fully understood. This makes it difficult to pinpoint any single sign of TBIs as a factor worth flagging.
- Broad categorization. TBI is a term that can refer to a wide range of different types of injuries. Someone who gets hit in the head with a golf ball, someone who slips and falls on the ice, and someone who gets shot in the head may all have a TBI—but they must be diagnosed and treated in very different ways.
- Range of symptoms. Most conditions are easily identifiable based on the symptoms they produce, but the symptoms produced by a TBI can be problematic. Some people who have a minor TBI might not exhibit any symptoms. Others may have their symptoms manifest in strange ways, like mood and behavior changes. Even worse, some TBI symptoms develop immediately, while others might not show up until long after the initial injury.
- Location of injury. TBIs happen to the head and the brain, which makes them difficult to study. Imaging techniques for the brain can be hard to execute, and many diagnostic techniques are invasive and/or risky.
Tools to Improve Diagnosis
Thankfully, we’re developing new kinds of tools that can not only improve how and when we diagnose TBIs, but also how we understand them.
These are just some of the new technologies emerging:
- Handheld and portable EEGs. Electroencephalograms (EEGs) are a type of electrophysiological monitoring method designed to measure and test different types of brain activity. Unfortunately, EEGs are often inaccessible or hard to access, making it difficult to diagnose TBIs in a timely manner. Now, researchers are working on developing more accessible, easier EEGs for faster and more convenient measurements.
- Eye pressure monitoring. Though unconventional, new methods of diagnosis are relying on eye pressure monitoring as a way to determine whether a TBI has occurred.
- Blood tests. Some researchers believe that certain biomarkers in human blood may be able to indicate whether or not there’s been a TBI. Being able to perform these blood tests and get results in a matter of days, if not hours, is going to be a vital step forward.
- Sensor-packed helmets. Some engineers are trying to solve the problem by including more sophisticated motion detection and collision detection equipment in helmets—which are frequently worn by the people most susceptible to TBIs.
The next step after developing these new technologies is ensuring their distribution to the people who need them most. Making them cost-effective and accessible enough for use in recreational activities, in professional sports and in the military, could eventually save thousands, if not millions of lives over time. It’s one step toward eliminating the problem of TBIs.