VSL:SCIENCE // Going into battle? Leave your helmet at home.

Are the helmets American soldiers are wearing in Iraq and Afghanistan doing enough to protect them from traumatic brain injury (TBI)?

TBI is now believed to occur in approximately 15 percent of all veterans returning from battle, and typically arises in soldiers lucky enough to survive a powerful blast from an IED or mortar attack. At first, everything appears normal: There are no visible scars or cuts on the head. But it isn’t long before these soldiers experience a wide array of symptoms, ranging from short-term-memory problems to severe headaches.

Everyone agrees that TBI is caused by damage to the soft tissue of the brain as it collides with the hard skull. (Imagine a Jell-O mold rattling inside a metal box.) Doctors have long assumed that TBI was an especially severe concussion, triggered when the cortex slammed against the interior walls of its carrying case. But now a paper led by physicists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory suggests that TBI can also caused by the warping of the skull as it bends inward in response to a shock wave. The scientists simulated the impact of typical battlefield explosions and found that time
and time again, the blasts were powerful enough to induce “localized skull flexure” and potentially severe brain damage. They also found that some conventional helmets — especially those with little protective foam and minor gaps between the head and the helmet — actually led to more skull flex than that caused by impacts absorbed with no protection whatsoever. According to the researchers, such dismal results should lead to a complete redesign of modern battlefield gear: Whether or not there’s blood involved, the mind can still be devastated.

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VSL:SCIENCE // Going into battle? Leave your helmet at home.