A device the size of a handheld computer could provide Army medics and emergency workers with an instant assessment of the severity of a brain injury.
The test would enable them to make life-or-death judgments concerning appropriate treatments and ensure that hard-to-spot injuries were not missed.
According to the US Department of Defence, penetrating brain injuries account for up to 25 per cent of battle fatalities, yet there is currently no way of diagnosing problems except through a brain scan which is not practical during combat.
The test works by pinpointing biochemical markers that are released into the bloodstream by brain cells when they are injured. As the cells die they break up and pieces of protein travel into the blood. Medical staff would take a very small sample of blood and place it in the device where it would be instantly analysed using a computer biochip.
Researchers at the University of Florida’s McKnight Brain Institute and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, who developed the system, say it could be ready for release in around three years.
‘The system looks a lot like a Star Trek tricorder,’ said Dr Kevin Wang, associate professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of Florida. ‘However, it is not just fantasy. There are around two million cases of brain trauma in the US alone each year and it is scandalous that such a huge area has not benefited from a simple monitor before.’
The handheld system could be used in hospitals to gauge the extent of any brain damage caused by a drug overdose or stroke, or by medics at football matches to check for damage after a player has suffered a blow to the head.
The US Army hopes that the test will help combat medics to make decisions over who is most likely to survive when limited spaces are available in a helicopter transporting casualties to safety.
As well as having the advantage of being portable, researchers believe that the system will cost as little as £110, compared to over £630 for a brain scan using magnetic resonance or a CT scanner.
They say that the low cost means injuries could be monitored more closely after treatment, as medical centres may currently avoid taking several brain scans as they have limited resources. If neurologists can identify a chemical indicator of impending nerve-cell death with a condition such as Alzheimer’s disease, the equipment could be used to map the progression of an illness.
‘Different bodily organs have different cell proteins,’ said Dr Wang. ‘If they are damaged these move into the blood and we should be able to detect them. One day the unit should provide a total internal health check. It can also be used to assess the neurotoxic properties of certain drugs when developing new treatments.’
The university has now formed a spin-out company called Daimonion Diagnostics to market the system.