Every year, approximately 1.7 million Americans suffer some form of traumatic brain injury.
A significant portion of TBI patients experience neurological symptoms including memory loss, mood changes and cognitive difficulties. Some patients who develop these symptoms experienced severe head trauma. Others though, only suffered mild concussions.
Traditionally, doctors have gauged the severity of a brain injury based on the amount of swelling that followed the initial injury. While this may help doctors get a handle on the immediate risks the patient faces, it does little to assess the patient's long-term risk of neurological difficulties.
This is because those difficulties are most often caused by the rupturing of connections within the brain. CT scans can't pick up this damage.
This invisibility has left both patients and doctors frustrated. TBI patients want some confirmation that the symptoms they are experiencing are rooted in a real physical injury. Doctors, for their part, find it difficult to accurately diagnose and treat the injury when they can't quantify the damage.
These concerns have led researchers to investigate new methods for diagnosing TBI. One, called high-definition fiber tracking, has been generating a lot of attention.
The new scanning method uses high-powered MRI devices to map the brain's major fiber networks, painting them in different colors based on their functions. Researchers can then pinpoint breaks in the network and indentify exactly which nerve connections were damaged by the TBI.
The scans present new hopes for TBI patients - if doctors can identify the damaged nerves, they may be able to repair the connections and relieve the patient's symptoms.