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Artificial intelligence, or AI, was at one time the Holy Grail of computer science. (It probably still is, in some inner circles -- maybe under another name.) It turns out that crafting a device capable of "thinking" must remain more or less on the back burner until we know more solidly what goes on in the original "thinking" machine: the human brain. As that understanding grows, and we can more closely simulate what happens at neuron Y when neuron X fires, we can turn some of our attention to the opposite problem: what happens at neuron Y when neuron X fails to fire -- as in a traumatic brain injury.

Even this presents one huge problem: the brain contains many, many more than just two neurons. Even a powerful desktop computer can't recreate all the interactions, the stimuli and responses, the changes over time in a moderately complex neural activity. Instead, we turn to supercomputers: machines capable of modeling the most complex, large-scale systems, both natural and man-made -- climate, astronomy, the genetic code, economics... and the traumatically injured brain.

Such a project recently in the news is a joint effort by the Sandia National Laboratories and the University of New Mexico. The research focuses on injuries sustained by the head as a result of nearby explosions, with the longer-term goal of improving military and sports helmet design. Researchers pursued two dovetailing lines of inquiry:

  • Modeling (in software) the different components of the human head, classified as bone, scalp, bone, spinal fluid, and so on.
  • Merging these artificial geometric models with MRI images and data on known, existing brain injuries resulting from nearby explosions in combat.
How complex are the phenomena being studied? According to one report:
Immediately following blast waves, soldiers can suffer brief losses of consciousness, but more damage evolves weeks later... The symptoms -- headaches, memory loss, mood disorders, depression and cognitive problems -- can prevent sufferers from working, he said.
[The project] is applying shock wave physics to understand how sensitive brain tissue is affected by waves from roadside bombs or blunt impacts within the first 5-10 milliseconds. That's before a victim's head moves any significant distance in response to the blast.
...Humans' fastest reaction times as teenagers are 75-100 milliseconds.
...In a typical blast simulation, 96 processors on Sandia's Red Sky supercomputer take about a day to process a millisecond of simulated time and at least 5 milliseconds are required to capture a single blast event.
There's another important avenue of investigation with the Sandia/UNM project. Most TBI studies, understandably, focus on injuries sustained from the top, front, sides, and back of the head. In recent combat, though, many brain and related injuries are coming from the bottom: the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan have often sent shock waves into the brain from below. Thus, the Sandia/UNM research has also modeled previously ignored portions of cranial anatomy: the jaw, mouth and palate, and cheekbones.

The YouTube video below comes from Sandia's YouTube channel. Says its description:
These computer simulations contain a computer model of a human's head. The images show the deposition of compressive energy in the brain during frontal blasts. These models combined with University of New Mexico's clinical observations are being used to identify energy thresholds that should lead to better military and sports helmet designs.


Sources:

  • AZoM (the "A to Z of Materials," for materials information research)
  • EE Times (information about advances in electronics engineering)
  • Txchnologist.com (general technological news of interest)

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