Over half of all injuries to U.S. troops are due to explosions, and a large percentage of those are head injuries. While helmets offer some protection, explosive pressure waves can be transmitted to soldier’s brains via their unprotected faces. With this in mind, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created a computer model to evaluate how useful face shields on army helmets would be in reducing traumatic brain injuries. Their conclusion: shields could save lives.

The research project is being led by Raul Radovitzky, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The model was created using MRI scans of subjects from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and supplemented with data from studies on the effects of mechanical shocks on pigs’ brains. It contains detailed anatomical features such as the sinuses, cerebrospinal fluid and layers of gray and white matter. The model also contains details on the type of modeled explosion, including the variety of explosive, its mass, and proximity to the head.

Radovitzky and his team ran a series of tests with the model, seeing how a soldier’s head would respond to a blast wearing no helmet, a standard Advanced Combat Helmet (ACH), and an ACH with a clear polycarbonate face shield. Although there was little difference between the injuries suffered by an unhelmeted and standard-helmeted soldier, the soldier with the face mask received significantly less stress to their brain.

The researchers have so far only modeled one specific explosion scenario where the blast wave hits from the front, but they plan to add others with differing blast angles and intensities. They will also simulate blast waves to the neck and torso, as it has been suggested that hits to these regions could also cause brain injuries.

In order to speed development of more effective helmets, both for military and civilian use, Radovitzky is releasing the source code for his model to the public as of this week. Interested parties can obtain it by contacting him at tbi-modeling@mit.edu

The research was published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.