Patients' lives could be saved or improved by new technology that enables medics to scan for bleeding in the brain using ultrasound.
Software being developed by the University of Aberdeen and funded by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory's (Dstl) Centre for Defence Enterprise- part of the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence - could help battlefield medics create 3-D models of soldiers brains while on location, which can then be sent to an expert for swift diagnosis.
The technology is still at an early stage of development but has already been trialed on real hospital patients to test its viability.
In addition to military applications, the software could also be helpful in civilian life, helping paramedics record head ultrasound to diagnose brain hemorrhage as a result of stroke or other causes. This could be particularly useful for patients living remotely, with a long distance to travel to hospital.
"Closed" brain injuries - for example, internal bleeding or other damage caused to the head by explosions or knocks - can cause death or have severe long-term implications. If identified early enough, emergency steps can be taken to prevent long-term damage, including drilling holes in the skull to relieve pressure, or taking medication.
Dr. Leila Eadie, a researcher at the Centre for Rural Health at the University of Aberdeen, said: "There is a clear need for this technology, as outlined by Dstl. Traumatic brain injury [TBI] is a big problem for the military, especially because it can be difficult to spot in the field and if left untreated, it can have long-term effects."
"Ultrasound is not normally used for imaging the brain, but we hope to prove through further investigations that it is a viable method of making an early diagnosis of head injury whilst in the field," she adds.
"Battlefield medics will not have CT or MRI scanners which are bulky and expensive, but they are likely to have ultrasound equipment already, so it is a case of extending the use of the kit they already have."
Diagnosis in the field
The ultrasound image of the brain is acquired using existing hardware as found in any hospital. The information is captured using a movement sensor attached to an ultrasound probe, which is used to scan the brain from certain points on the skull where the bone is thinnest.
The probe captures up to 40 images per second, and the resulting 3-D image can be built up from around 2,000 individual photos.
The software is designed to guide a medic with only basic training in ultrasound to produce as detailed a scan of the brain as possible, by showing the user where it has already scanned, and where has yet to be scanned. Once completed, the file containing the brain scan can be sent to an expert for analysis and appropriate advice is fed back to the medical staff on the ground.
Because of the nature of battlefield scenarios, soldiers with "invisible" injuries could be overlooked, so having a relatively simple means of scanning the head for any problematic signs would be extremely helpful.
"U.K. Armed Forces operate in many remote locations and where personnel are injured we need to ensure that all conditions can be rapidly and correctly diagnosed to provide the best possible treatment and care.
Devices which are lightweight, easy to deploy and easy to use, such as the portable ultrasound scanning support system being developed by the University of Aberdeen, have the potential to enhance our capabilities on operations and enhance patient care."
Neal Smith, Dstl's capability advisor for medical sciences.