Oak Ridge National Laboratory


News Release

Media Contact: Ron Walli (wallira@ornl.gov)
Communications and External Relations


ORNL focuses on method to detect brain injuries

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Oct. 19, 1999 — People with head injuries may one day be screened on site for brain damage using a portable instrument and a technique being developed at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

Using a focused beam of ultrasound waves, doctors can quickly and accurately evaluate the extent of a head injury and later monitor the patient's condition, said Tuan Vo-Dinh, a group leader and corporate fellow in ORNL's Life Sciences Division. The technique should save time and lives by giving rescue teams vital information to make effective early treatment decisions in those vital hours following an accident.

"After the initial injury, bleeding and swelling can cause dangerous pressures to build up in the brain, blocking blood flow through the brain," Vo-Dinh said. "With conventional technology, doctors take CAT scans and monitor the patient's injury using surgically implanted sensors. The ORNL proprietary method uses a non-invasive, portable, easy-to-use and relatively inexpensive device to accomplish the same task. If a hemorrhage, clot or tumor is present, the symmetry of ultrasound echo patterns in the brain may be distorted, indicating an abnormality."

The key to the success of the system, being developed for the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, is in the proprietary method for penetrating the skull using different types of ultrasound to obtain a more complete picture of what is occurring inside the head.

"Our instrument can operate over a wide range of frequencies of special interest," Vo-Dinh said. "Each frequency range has a unique task to perform. Together, they provide data that will tell doctors the condition of the brain."

Sound waves at certain frequencies provide information with superior spatial resolution while other frequencies allow better sound wave penetration in certain tissue types and result in improved detection.

"For example, medical ultrasonic imaging has generally limited success in imaging the brain because of the difficulty in penetrating the skull," Vo-Dinh said. "But the skull becomes less of a barrier at lower frequencies."

Vo-Dinh expects the ultrasonic and low-frequency acoustic detection technique to achieve even better results.

This spring, researchers tested the technique using a prototype system. The ultrasound unit emitted a signal that researchers could analyze with a mobile monitor. Vo-Dinh expects a prototype system to be ready for patient testing later this year, pending completion of all necessary reviews.

"Our goal is to find a way to screen patients rapidly," Vo-Dinh said. "In the clinical laboratories, the technique will not replace sensors; however, it will allow doctors to monitor brain activity with less trauma to the patient."

Others involved in the project include Stephan Norton, a former staff researcher at ORNL, and Joel Mobley, a post-doctoral fellow at the lab.

Funding for the project is provided by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command and the Laboratory Directed Research and Development program, an internal source of funding provided by DOE.

ORNL is a DOE multiprogram research facility managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corporation.