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Daniel Stunkard of New Castle, Pa., is among the first 50 TBI patients in Pitt's testing. The 32-year-old spent three weeks in a coma after his all-terrain vehicle crashed in late 2010. CT and regular MRI scans showed only some bruising and swelling, unable to predict if he'd wake up and in what shape.
When Stunkard did awaken, he couldn't move his left leg, arm or hand. Doctors started rehabilitation in hopes of stimulating healing, and Okonkwo says the high-def fiber tracking predicted what happened. The scan found partial breaks in nerve fibers that control the leg and arm, and extensive damage to those controlling the hand. In six months, Stunkard was walking. He now has some arm motion. But he still can't use his hand, his fingers curled tightly into a ball. Okonkwo says those nerve fibers were too far gone for repair.
"They pretty much knew right off the bat that I was going to have problems," Stunkard says. "I'm glad they did tell me. I just wish the number (of missing fibers) had been a little better."
The new tool promises a much closer look at nerve fibers than is now possible through a technique called diffusion tensor imaging, says Dr. Rocco Armonda, a neurosurgeon at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
"It's like comparing your fuzzy screen black-and-white TV with a high-definition TV," he says.
Armonda soon will begin studying the high-def scan on soldiers being treated for TBI at Walter Reed, to see if its findings correlate with their injuries and recovery. It's work that could take years to prove.
Other attempts are in the pipeline. For example, the military is studying whether a souped-up kind of CT scan could help spot TBI by measuring changes in blood flow inside the brain. The National Institutes of Health is funding a search for substances that might leak into the bloodstream after a brain injury, allowing for a blood test that might at least tell "if a kid can go back to sports next week," Koroshetz says.
He cautions that just finding an abnormality doesn't mean it's to blame for someone's symptoms.
And however the hunt for better tests pans out, Walter Reed's Armonda says the bigger message is to take steps to protect your brain.
"What makes the biggest difference is everybody -- little kids riding their bicycles, athletes playing sports, soldiers at war -- is aware of TBI," he says.
Lauran Neergaard covers health and medical issues for The Associated Press in Washington.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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