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Wars’ toll speeds push for better helmets

Lowell-based Xenith LLC is developing a next-generation helmet padding system. Lowell-based Xenith LLC is developing a next-generation helmet padding system. (Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)
By Theo Emery
Globe Staff / August 15, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Stephen Kinney regained consciousness to the sound of voices screaming “IED, IED!’’ over the radio and the smell of acrid smoke filling his Humvee. As he fumbled to help his comrades, he took stock of his own injuries.

His shoulder was torn, his right ear deafened, and his thigh bruised from his hip to his knee. But the Army National Guard sergeant escaped critical injuries from the roadside bomb in Iraq that rocked his vehicle in November 2004.

The hidden problems began when he returned home.

The now-retired postal carrier from North Chelmsford had problems remembering names on his route. Crossword puzzle answers eluded him. A doctor revealed the reason: Though he had been wearing his helmet when the improvised explosive device went off, he had sustained a traumatic brain injury.

“I don’t think they knew at the time that we’d be up against this weapon, an IED,’’ Kinney, 58, said of the military’s preparation for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Pentagon officials now know what their service members are up against - and that a primary protection for the men and women on the front lines, the helmet, is inadequate. The result is a race to solve one of their biggest equipment challenges: developing a helmet that not only protects brains from the traditional enemies of bullets and shrapnel but also from blunt blows and invisible, devastating blast waves from explosions.

The toll is stark: Since the beginning of 2006, when Iraqi militants made IEDs their weapon of choice, nearly 140,000 service members have suffered brain injuries, according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. Almost 10,000 such injuries have occurred in just the first three months of 2011.

Only a small percentage of those injuries - a few hundred a year - are strictly penetrating wounds from bullets or projectiles that helmets were designed to protected against, according to the center’s data. The rest are mild to severe injuries that result from blows, falls, or blast waves of energy - often in combination - from explosions.

The military is attacking the problem on multiple fronts. Government-funded researchers nationwide - including at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, and the New England Veterans Administration medical centers - are examining the brain, neuron by neuron. Their cutting-edge research focuses on how the brain reacts to blunt force, such as Kinney’s head slamming against the ceiling of his Humvee during the blast, or to shock waves from a blast that can damage its delicate tissue, sometimes in ways that don’t emerge until long after the injury.

At the same time, engineers at such places as the Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center are trying to combine the best materials and designs for both the outer shell of the helmet and its padding system.

Finally, companies such as Lowell-based Xenith LLC have tapped into Pentagon funds in an effort to develop and produce the next-generation helmet system.

Those working for a solution confronted yet another in a growing list of sobering statistics late last month: A study released at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Paris found that older veterans who had suffered head injuries have more than double the risk of dementia.

The Pentagon has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the overall effort to develop a better helmet, said Michael J. Leggieri Jr., director of the Department of Defense Blast Injury Research Program Coordinating Office.

“It’s critically important that we first understand the mechanism, and then we move to the next step of how we can figure out how to best protect against the injury,’’ Leggieri said.

That effort will start on the battlefield. This fall, about 30,000 soldiers will carry tiny sensors in their helmets to record data about blows to their heads.

Back home, scientists will add the results to reams of information on how the brain reacts to trauma. Researchers will pay particular attention to clues that help them decode their biggest enigma: how blast waves of energy from explosions affect brain tissue.

“If we do not understand the injury, we are not going to be able to make a lot of progress in the protection system. It’s like trying to design a bridge without knowing that you’re going to make it out of steel,’’ said Raul A. Radovitzky, associate director of MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies.

Radovitzky made a discovery last year that might have broad implications. Through modeling studies, he found that face shields could help protect brains against such blast waves.

In the labs of the Bedford VA Medical Center, neuropathologist Ann McKee is probing the donated brains of deceased athletes and military veterans to untangle the mysteries of their injuries.

The research is intended to prevent and treat injuries. McKee has already shown, for example, that symptoms from brain injuries among athletes can lead to misdiagnoses of Lou Gehrig’s disease and that some players of such contact sports as football had symptoms of brain injuries that are similar to those of some soldiers.

“We’re working on an experimental model system to understand . . . the biomechanics of these injuries, especially blast injuries, which we hope in the very near future will lead to some ideas as to how helmet technologies could be improved,’’ she said.

At Natick Labs, engineers are attempting to knit the latest research on brain injuries with research on new materials and designs to build and test prototypes of revolutionary helmet systems.

Donald R. Lee II, a Natick product engineer, said developing better helmets is the lab’s top priority.

In May, he briefed helmet makers at a Pentagon conference about new specifications for the crucial padding systems that cradle the head inside the helmet’s hard shell.

One of the companies that hopes to make those helmets is Xenith LLC, a firm best known for its unique football helmets, which use air-filled shock absorbers rather than pads. Growing awareness about sports concussions has significantly raised the profile of the company.

The company has been testing its padding system, called a “shock bonnet,’’ to determine whether it can be adapted for military use. The company has received about $100,000 in federal funds to develop and test the technology.

“These guys are being subjected to incredible conditions, and who needs better head protection more than our soldiers?’’ said Vincent R. Ferrara, the company’s founder and chief executive. Ferrara, a doctor and former Harvard quarterback, admits that protection against bumps, knocks, and other blunt trauma will come before blast-wave protection.

“The blast-wave project is definitely a longer-term project that may take a fair amount of time,’’ he said.

For the military, private researchers, and helmet manufacturers, such challenges are daunting. Given the complexity and the vulnerability of the brain and the myriad ways to inflict harm in today’s wars, even the next wave of advanced helmet systems might not be enough.

“The military is in a very difficult position of coming up with a one-size-fits-all type of solution,’’ said Jeff Victoroff, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Southern California’s medical school.

For victims such as Nick Colgin, 27, the effort comes too late.

In the fall of 2007, he dragged to safety a French soldier who’d been shot in the head, and for that rescue he earned a Bronze Star.

Days later, Colgin was driving his Humvee through a riverbed in Afghanistan’s Tagab Valley when a rocket-propelled grenade detonated alongside the vehicle.

Colgin was wearing his helmet, and at first his injuries didn’t seem severe, just a badly broken nose. Yet something wasn’t right: His eye twitched and his speech slowed. He couldn’t spell his own name. A doctor found the culprit after Colgin returned from Afghanistan: traumatic brain injury.

Even though he was a medic, he said, he knew little about such brain injuries. Now, his hope is that the growing awareness of the problem will translate into better helmets.

“There definitely could be improvements,’’ he said.

Theo Emery can be reached at temery@globe.com.