Future of Brain Health Begins with USAMRDC, Burgeoning ESiT Program
Tyler Rooks doesn't normally talk about football at work – usually in his position at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command's U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory, it's just numbers and spreadsheets – but it just so happened that one specific play during one specific game last week caught his attention. As a local morning newscast showed what appeared to be a head injury sustained by a star player following a particularly aggressive hit, he recognized the situation as an example of the grand potential of his work.
"That kind of hit, that's a perfect example of what a sensor – a sensor like the kind we're looking for – can do in a perfect scenario," said Rooks, the team lead for the Soldier Monitoring and Applied Research Telemetry Team at USAARL. "You could potentially have a sensor that says, 'Hey, this person hit his head at this impact level and he cannot go back into the game.'"
In short, that is Rooks' objective with the Environmental Sensors in Training program at USAARL: identify both wearable and environmental sensors that can be used in military environments – chiefly those with applications to blast exposure and head acceleration impact. The goal is to inform leaders when Service Members performing in military operations experience potentially concussive events, thereby prompting medical care. Following its launch in 2015, the ESiT program has since found itself at the very forefront of the Army's modernization strategy.
Starting with the release of the 2019 Army Modernization Strategy document, the Army has been driving towards a transformation of the Joint Force into a stronger, smarter multi-domain force that additionally retains its current globally-dominant posture. Adherence to the AMS means attempts to ensure Soldier readiness and lethality will play critical roles in helping the Army meet its goal by the stated date of 2035. Those two areas of interest, it turns out, are the twin focus points of Rooks' research.
"Concussion is a huge topic," said Rooks of his work, "brain health is a huge topic, repeated concussions are a huge topic. These are all very large concerns for a good reason: the effects of repeated exposure and repeated concussions are growing in concern."
When it comes to the ESiT program, USAARL focuses on head and brain-related impact research, while studies focusing on blast impact take place at USAMRDC's Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Together, their goal is to evaluate the technologies currently available on the market and then elevate the systems that can aid in data collection for military uses specifically. While that may seem like a relatively straightforward objective, there have been numerous road bumps in the drive to integrate sensors into day-to-day Army objectives.
"The hurdle that we frequently run into is this: a lot of these devices are developed for athletics, especially if we're evaluating commercial, off-the-shelf devices," said Rooks, who's been at USAARL for ten years and currently works under the laboratory's Injury Biomechanics and Protection Group. "And when you take a device that's designed to be worn and used for three-to-five hours at most, and then you put it on someone going through airborne training – which requires them to wear the sensor for ten hours a day – it creates logistical issues in terms of battery life, management and comfort of those sensors."
Another issue is how, exactly, to apply the data collected by those sensors to real-world situations. Currently, there is no accepted threshold whereby a medical provider can say, definitively at the point-of-injury, that a person has suffered a concussion after sustaining a blow to the head at any particular rate of speed. Developing such guidelines will be a main focus of the SMART team moving forward as well.
The use of sensors, of course, remains critical to the Army's overall modernization efforts and, further still, a key component of USAMRDC's contribution to the effort. The Optimizing the Human Weapon System program, based out of USAMRDC's Military Operational Medicine Research Program, uses sensors to analyze essential human performance and wellness data in an ecologically valid way. Additionally, a joint project between MOMRP and USAMRDC's Military Infectious Diseases Research Program recently resulted in the development of a "smart-ring" – a wearable device that generates continuous temperature data – that may alert users to the presence of COVID-19 and, potentially, other viral infections as well.
While Rooks and his team work with industry players on occasion, their main goal is honing the science to better communicate what kind of tool they need from corporate vendors. If everything goes according to plan, future implementations of ESiT technologies will provide an objective, field-ready tool for identifying potentially concussive events to inform leadership of Soldiers at risk of injury or compromised fitness-for-duty status. In addition – and in what Rooks has described as a long-term goal of the program – Soldiers will have an accurate concussive-related exposure record integrated into their health record, which could help inform post-career health management and coverage.
Given the work both Rooks and the SMART group are doing now, those goals get closer each day; efforts that allow USAMRDC to better prepare and equip the Warfighter for the future battlefield.
"We really fit best with the concept of Soldier lethality," said Rooks. "That's where we can really achieve – with that idea of readiness and maintaining readiness by having leaders and medical personnel identify injured Soldiers early, then treat them early, and allow them to return to duty faster."