During the U.S. military’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 200,000 service members have suffered traumatic brain injuries from the blasts of improvised explosive devices and other sources.
Working for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s research and development arm, Jeffrey Rogers created an innovative device to record the essential characteristics of bomb blasts experienced by soldiers, allowing for a more accurate way to assess the levels of exposure and to provide needed medical assistance.
The information from the device, known as the Blast Gauge, enables medics to quickly treat soldiers who may not otherwise have shown any immediate visible symptoms. Not only has the gauge led to better medical care, it has also improved troop management and created new training procedures to protect soldiers from head trauma.
“On his own initiative, Jeffrey Rogers saw a problem and came up with a solution that gets the data that we need to better understand the brain damage we can’t see,” said retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the chief executive officer of One Mind for Research, a nonprofit organization that deals with brain injuries and mental illness.
Traumatic brain injury is defined as a blow or jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the brain’s functions. The severity may range from a brief change in mental status or consciousness to an extended period of unconsciousness or amnesia after the injury. It can cause memory, mood and concentration problems, headaches, weakness in a limb, problems sleeping, vertigo and an increased risk for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other brain disorders.
The Blast Gauge is a small device worn at three locations: the back of the head, chest and shoulder. Each gauge contains a microprocessor and sensors that give it the capability to capture the abrupt changes in pressure and acceleration associated with blasts. The device contains software that records relevant events with data that can be downloaded via a USB port. Red, green and yellow status lights on the device indicate the level of blast exposure at a glance.
“It is identifying people who do not know they have been exposed to a blast wave, and then a doctor or medic can take a closer look. It shows you can be hurt without knowing it,” said Geoffrey Ling, deputy director of DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office. “Because of the Blast Gauge, we’re learning so much more about blast safety and how to properly devise gear to combat it.”
The small device, in use for more than two years, costs less than $50 per unit and has been provided to more 50,000 members of all services so far. Other countries, such as Australia, also have adopted the device for their own troops.
Although the U.S. military is reducing its footprint in Afghanistan, it doesn’t mean the problem of traumatic brain disorder will disappear. The Army has estimated that more than 75 percent of such injuries occur during training, something that colleagues say Rogers’ work has helped to reveal and that has resulted in changes to reduce exposure.
“This led to certain military units monitoring their soldiers during training to get a baseline of everything that happens to them,” said Rogers. “The Blast Gauge is making it safer for people who don’t even go into combat, and makes some injuries, including getting injured by repeated low-level exposures in training, totally avoidable.”
Rogers’s work arose after he became curious about developing a sensor to help in situations in which explosions occur so quickly that there is no way service members can even perceive what actually happened. He eventually concluded that it wasn’t the acceleration of impact that was the major cause of injuries: It was a phenomenon called overpressure, occurring before the acceleration that was affecting the brain.
That idea met with some resistance from the medical community, but colleagues said that Rogers—who has since left DARPA to work for Google—did not back down.
“He always had science on his side and was able to show that,” said Dale Waters, director of DARPA’s Adaptive Execution Office.
Rogers also had to overcome the formidable logistical and organizational difficulties of designing and implementing something new for wide military use.
“When a new idea such as the Blast Gauge comes along, there is no requirement for that device, so there is no funding available to pay it,” said Robert Colwell, director of DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office. “It is extremely difficult to get the necessary cooperation.”
But Rogers discovered early on that members of the Special Operations Forces were more open than others to trying new ideas and felt less constrained by existing requirements. Their use of the device led to subsequent exploratory trials by the Army and Marines.
“Without his persistence, it would have gone nowhere,” said Colwell.