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High-tech doll to assist brain injury research

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January 13, 2008

Post-doctoral research fellow Arne Stray-Pedersen with the technology-packed doll
 Photo: ...

Post-doctoral research fellow Arne Stray-Pedersen with the technology-packed doll Photo: Ola Sæther

January 14, 2008 Researchers in forensic medicine at the University of Oslo are learning more about brain injuries in infants caused by shaking with the assistance of a very high-tech doll.

All too often news reports carry stories of tragic infant deaths that are likely to be the result of shaking. Each year in the U.S. alone, it's estimated that 1000 babies die after being shaken, with an equal number of cases resulting in brain damage.

To investigate injuries caused by shaking and blunt force trauma, ten people will play “aggressive parents” and shake the technology-packed doll. Researchers will be able to measure what happens when a baby is violently shaken, compare those injuries with falls from various heights thereby developing a concrete model for brain injuries. The €19 000 doll, originally designed as a car crash test dummy, will be used to learn more about the connection between shaking and damage in an infant’s brain. Although it is already filled with advanced instrumentation, researchers at SINTEF will put in extra equipment so that forensic researchers can measure the stress on the brain from shaking or from the head striking a hard surface or object.

Shaking causes a baby’s head to accelerate quickly so the doll’s head accelerates in three directions. Under acceleration, the stress on an infant’s head can be compared to the worst stress experienced by the pilot of a fighter jet. While shaking can equal ten times the force of gravity (10 G), a fighter pilot can only stand a force of 9 G for a short time before passing out. And in a car accident at 70km (around 43 miles) per hour, the brain is subjected to the force of only a few G.

Post-doctoral research fellow Arne Stray-Pedersen from the University of Oslo has engaged the use of the doll in an effort to improve forensic evidence in legal cases of shaken babies. In an area fraught with difficulties, far from all cases are reported and just a handful end up being handled by the justice system. People who are guilty of this type of abuse may go free due to a lack of evidence; others are wrongly suspected of a crime that they did not commit. “It is a problematic and difficult task. We unfortunately don’t have good enough measurements to differentiate between injuries due to abuse, accidents, and congenital defects. There are no witnesses when an abuser injures an innocent child, and we have neither video nor other evidence that can be used in court,” explains Arne Stray-Pedersen.

Being shaken is enormously traumatic to a baby with the head moving so much that the brain can be destroyed. It's estimated that one in three shaken babies is so injured that he or she dies, another third survive with serious complications such as physical paralysis, blindness, and serious mental handicaps. The remaining third seem unharmed at first, but research indicates that these youngsters are overrepresented in the statistics for ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). There are some in the scientific community who still deny the affects of shaking on babies but Stray-Pedersen hopes that this research will create concrete forensic evidence.

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