Woodruff Reports: Cutting-Edge Brain Technology

Bob Woodruff reports on technology to help troops and athletes minimize injury.

ByABC News via via logo

Dec. 14, 2007 — -- Each year, 1.4 million Americans suffer traumatic brain injuries. Thousands of those have been service men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The military is now teaming up with private medical companies and making major advances in treating brain trauma. Four new technologies are showing incredible promise.

Virginia Tech football players have been wearing special helmets lately. The players are helping test helmets for American troops that monitor and record impact. The data collected from those sensors help researchers gauge the magnitude of each impact and their exact location.

Meanwhile at Fort Belvoir, Va., the military is measuring the power of explosions on test dummies wearing the sensored helmets.

"We're experimenting now with helmet devices that will measure the blast or measure the velocity of a soldier's head as it moves," said Gen. George William Casey, chief of staff of the U.S. Army. "And the soldier will go back to a base and it can be actually downloaded onto a computer so we measure what that soldier's been exposed to."

Another groundbreaking technology is the transcranial doppler, which measures blood flow inside the brain. The measurements allow doctors to determine a course of treatment as soon as an the injury occurs.

"The key is to improve the blood flow to the brain at the time of the injury," said neurologist Thomas DeGravo.

DeGravo explained that if something wasn't working properly in the brain, the transcranial doppler would show an extreme increase in blood flow. For example, the device could detect if someone had just been through an improvised explosive device blast, making it a useful medical tool for troops.

Military and civilian medical schools are currently testing wobble plates and they're about four to six months away from the front lines. The plate measures how wobbly you are after an impact and compares it to your normal state. The readings help doctors diagnose the level of trauma and could help troops after an explosion as much as a prize fighter after a knockout.

ABC News' Bob Woodruff tested out the wobble plate with Col. Richard Dombroski. Dombroski, a doctor, had Woodruff stand on the plate for 30 seconds with his eyes open and then again for 30 seconds with his eyes closed. He noticed he felt a slight difference when his eyes were closed and the plate picked up on it.

These impressive technologies mean huge costs and limited access, so designers have been working on a more affordable, portable model. Football teams can keep one on the side of the field and test players for possible concussions.

When the device is held up to the side of the head it can hear the blood flow. The changes in those sounds will allow you to tell how much blood is flowing through the artery and what's going on inside the brain.

The hand-held Doppler could help military doctors, in the middle of war, to determine whether they need to remove part of the scull to allow blood to flow better. Or, it could help determine whether or not a player should stay in or get out of a football game.

"With mine it was obvious," Woodruff said, referring to his 2006 injury sustained by a roadside bomb while reporting in Iraq for ABC News. "I was knocked out so they knew they had to get the skull off, they had to get me out, but for those who are hit and sometimes don't get knocked out they don't know the extent of the concussion that they get. When you have a tool like this or the ones we showed you … then you can make that decision whether or not they should get out or actually have some surgery."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events