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PANORAMA: 1997

Fake Head Reveals Truth About Brain Injuries
by John Hutchinson

For the first time scientists and engineers have achieved the construction of an artificial human head using simulated tissue and bone that can measure and assess the ways in which brain injuries are caused by impacts.

The head, named DERAMan by the British team developing it, contains a simulated brain made with realistic materials that mimic the brain in the ways they reflect, transmit and dissipate energy. Uniquely, these advanced polyurethane materials contain banks of small ultra-sensitive sensors that monitor potentially harmful stress waves passing through the brain during and after impact to give researchers a highly accurate picture of the impact's effect on different regions of the brain.

DERAMan - or Dynamic Event Response Analysis Man - has been constructed by researchers at Britain's Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) in southern England. Here, Dr Sandra Bell and her colleagues have drawn together widely differing strands of high technology research being undertaken at DERA to gain a much clearer understanding of impact-related head injuries and to identify ways of reducing them.

More than 100,000 deaths are caused by head injuries each year worldwide and about 90,000 people are left disabled, many in motor vehicle, sporting and defence environments. Researchers are confident that DERAMan will pioneer a standard test methodology to cover these and all other causes of head injuries based on the quantification of the actual work done to components of the head by impact-related energy waves.

Such a method would enable scientists to calculate accurately all risks of potential head-impact injuries and to assess the real effectiveness of head-protection equipment, while at the same time acting as a design tool to develop better protective systems.

Whiplash injury is one specific project on which DERAMan will focus soon, enabling researchers to discover the exact mechanisms by which injuries are received. Its smart range of piezoelectronic sensors buried in the middle of its brain between the two cerebral hemispheres and lining the inner surface of the skull, will be able to identify the physical phenomena responsible for whiplash injuries.

This instrumentation allows the assessment of all likely events inside the brain including gross movement after impact, three-dimensional high-amplitude stress wave propagation and relative movement between components of the brain. Linked to these instruments are advanced analysis techniques that can chart the spread of the energy involved in the impact and identify the critical parameters responsible for injuries.

British-developed materials and technologies in DERAMan include ultra-thin film arrays that monitor the spread of shock waves, conducting polymer array devices that provide acoustically transparent sensing materials forming part of the brain's structure, and accelerometers and gauges to define the relative movements of brain components.

Its 90 channels of information are fed into a computer for real-time analysis, enabling researchers to build a three-dimensional understanding of the ways energy waves propagate within the brain and injure or kill the cells in tissue.

For the defence industry, DERAMan will pioneer an accurate way to assess the risk of injury to personnel using various types of body armour. By giving precise information both on deformation of tissue behind the armour system and on the shape and form of the transmitted stress, the head's technology will enable injury mechanisms associated with behind-armour trauma to be identified and improved armour to be designed as a result.

The safety of aircrew ejecting from stricken military aircraft is another vital application for the DERA system, whose technology will allow scientists to quantify the serious threats to the spine caused by the initial explosive release of the seat (that sends a high-frequency stress wave up the pilot's spine) and by the rapid acceleration forces, that load the pilot's head with massive amounts of injury-risking energy.

DERAMan's capability stems from the use of various world-leading technologies developed by DERA scientists. These include materials with specific dynamic properties used for stealth applications on submarines, new sensing array and imaging technologies used by surface ships and submarine sonars, and simulation techniques that replicate exactly the properties of human tissue and bone.

Through DERAMan these British defence-related technologies are now becoming available to the world's civil sector, where sporting and automotive applications are particularly urgent. Every sport that carries a heavy risk of impact injury, such as motor racing, boxing, karate, and rugby, is set to benefit by the new technology - as is the automotive field where safer vehicles can be designed using its ability to record accurately the injury mechanisms occurring on impact.

This innovation is to become the focus of the DERAMan Club, open to defence specialists, academics, automotive researchers, sporting equipment manufacturers and everyone else involved with head-related injuries. And DERA is seeking commercial partners worldwide for this initiative.

Meanwhile, the technology in this smart artificial brain is set to lead to follow-on work involving other parts of the body that are particularly prone to impact injury, such as the chest and lower limbs.

So the leading-edge technologies that have come together in DERAMan's head will help make the 21st century a safer era for people in a range of potentially hazardous environments around the world.

For more information contact:

Dr Sandra Bell
Griffith Building (A7), Structural Materials Centre, DERA Farnborough
Hampshire, United Kingdom, GU14 0LX
Telephone: +44 1252 397555
Fax: +44 1252 392035

  

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