Kenneth Watkin, left, and Ravi Iyer have developed communications technology that will transfer real-time blast injury data to first responders. They plan to develop and test an integrated system, which will include a modified battlefield helmet retrofitted with "smart nanotechnology sensors" designed to record the effects of blast injuries in real time.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -University of Illinois researchers are pooling their knowledge of health sciences and engineering on a project that ultimately could benefit combat soldiers who've received serious - but often immediately undetectable - blast-related brain injuries.
The project will focus on the use of the latest communications technology to transfer real-time blast-injury data to first responders. Leading the investigation is Kenneth Watkin, a professor of speech and hearing science in the College of Applied Health Sciences who also holds appointments in the U. of I.'s Beckman Institute and Information Trust Institute, and Ravi Iyer, the director of the College of Engineering's Coordinated Science Laboratory and ITI chief scientist. Co-investigators are ITI associates and professors of electrical and computer engineering Zbigniew Kalbarczyk, Janek Patel, William H. Sanders and Mark Spong.
The research was funded recently through a Concept Award from the U.S. Department of Defense Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder/Traumatic Brain Injury Research Program of the Office of Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs.
Over the course of the next year, the researchers plan to develop and test an integrated system, which will include a modified battlefield helmet retrofitted with "smart nanotechnology sensors" designed to record the effects of blast injuries in real time. The system will be configured to record and analyze a variety of data on the helmet-wearer's physical condition, then upload that information to first responders or field-hospital personnel using small cell-phone-like devices.
"We will adapt state-of-the-art communications technology to suit the system being designed," Iyer said.
"What we're doing is actually physically monitoring systemic variables of soldiers in the battlefield, embedding our sensors within the helmet," Watkin said. "We'll gather baseline data as they're going about their regular daily business. But once a big pressure wave is recorded, all of the recordings will begin in real time to look at the response in the brain - to look at changes in oxygen in the blood, heart rate, those types of systemic variables that can give us a key that something is happening to the person."
An important consideration being factored into the design of the system is its overall size and weight.
"We want to make the sensors small," Watkin said. "We're very sensitive to the fact that today's soldier carries around a lot of weight, related simply to electronics."
He noted that the U.S. Army does have some sensor-equipped helmets in use today in Afghanistan, but they only record results every 30 days, significantly limiting their effectiveness.
"There's no continuous recording," Watkin said. "And that's really the key for (detecting and treating) traumatic brain injury. That's the real important part of this development."
Large numbers of soldiers are returning from combat with a variety of physical and behavioral complaints ranging from anxiety and irritability to headaches, memory loss and aphasia - classic characteristics of TBI. The underlying cause has been masked, Watkin said, because not everyone who experiences a blast injury registers it as "significantly perceptible event."
"You can be on the battlefield and sustain some potential injury and not really know it," he said. "Sometimes they don't occur until hours or even days afterward." Besides problems that can be caused from undetected brain hemorrhaging, cognitive impairment can lead to potentially negative outcomes.
"If you're in active combat and your brain's not working quite the way it should, mistakes are made," Watkin said.
"And the problem in field hospitals is, it's difficult to identify these folks early on. You're dealing with all kinds of really severe traumas, so individuals with potential brain injury are not identifiable quickly and easily in the battlefield. So, we're proposing to integrate all of our recording methods to come up with a method to identify these people early on. Simple. Quick. Easy for battlefield personnel."
Watkin, who is leading research in the health theme area of the College of Applied Health Sciences' recently organized Center on Health, Aging and Disability, regards the work as "a beautiful example of how those of us on the health, aging and disability side, when we work directly with colleagues in engineering, can do some interesting and significant translational research."
While Watkin brings his knowledge of brain functioning, physiological monitoring and biomedical engineering to the project, the electrical and computer engineers are contributing the technological know-how.
"Our role in this project is to create the impact sensors that allow the helmet to relay critical information to first responders in real-time," Iyer said. "In order to accomplish this task, we are creating hardware and software that can accurately and quickly measure the force of blasts and the body's coordinating response.
"More specifically, we will develop a small-footprint, low-power hardware computing platform."
Iyer said the system design will be based on "embedded processors, such as ARM, and will include compact memory to enable code download and data storage." Two types of external interfaces will be provided: wired link - using flex material - to support connectivity with sensors, and wireless link - using communications technologies such as Bluetooth - to support data communication.
"An important task in providing a robust processing unit will be the development of the resident software for the sensors," Iyer added.
"The software architecture will be partitioned into a set of interacting modules, each one responsible for a specific subtask." For example, he said, one module would serve as the sensor data manager to monitor, filter and store sensor data; another would function as a "system checker," detecting "misbehavior due to software or hardware faults." Another would serve as a data transmission engine, "to wirelessly transmit data out of the computing unit."
While the initial project research and development will focus on a system designed to benefit soldiers in combat situations, the researchers envision a range of alternative uses for the technology.
"What we're doing with the Army here may end up being something that's adopted by neurological intensive care units as one way of monitoring a person's status," Watkin said.
"Or, say you have a seizure disorder while driving ... if you had wireless devices that said, 'Wow, you're having a seizure, your car, through OnStar, could just literally slow down." And, he said: "I worry about people on motorcycles. If there's something that's built in and automatic that stays with the helmet, a first responder would know what's happened to the individual in an accident setting."
Other applications include integrating such systems - along with global positioning technology - into the helmets of civilian first responders. For instance, if a firefighter experienced oxygen failure while deep within a smoke-filled building, that information could be relayed back to a home base.
"These types of systems have great potential for saving lives in a number of situations," Watkin said.