Contrary to the erroneous early reports that U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was killed during the attack on her campaign event Saturday, the Congresswoman survived the attempt on her life. She’s considered lucky to be alive–gunman Jared Loughner shot her in the head at close range.
Now, as she enters the long, unpredictable journey back from serious brain injury, there are at least good signs.
The optimism expressed Sunday was based on Ms. Giffords’s ability to communicate by responding nonverbally to the doctors’ simple commands, like squeezing a hand, wiggling toes and holding up two fingers. The tests are part of a standard neurological examination after head injuries. In Ms. Giffords’s case, the doctors were encouraged because the simple tests showed that she could hear and respond appropriately, indicating that key brain circuits were working. [The New York Times]
This morning, the news remained positive—reportedly the swelling in Giffords’ brain is not getting any worse. That swelling is the real danger in the immediate aftermath of injury if the person survives the initial shock, as Giffords did. Fortunately, she found herself in the care of Dr. Peter Rhee, who was a Navy doctor for 24 years, tending to Marines and soldiers and learning emergency response to brain injury.
Dr. Michael Lemole, chief of neurosurgery at the University Medical Center in Tucson, explains that a large piece of Giffords’ skull has been removed to prevent the swollen brain from pressing against the rigid skull, which would cause further damage.
“The key is making a wide opening in the skull so that the brain can relax into it. Decompression has allowed us to save soldiers with horrible blast injuries,” said Lemole, who removed a wedge from the left side of Giffords’ skull, above the area pierced by a bullet. After the swelling subsides, he said, the bone will be put back into place, closing the gap in her skull. [USA Today]
Traumatic brain injury has become the signature war wound for soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan–and new research suggests that soldiers may not be adequately protected against the explosions that cause these injuries. By modeling how blast waves propagate through a soldier’s head, an MIT research group found that current combat helmets don’t offer much protection, because the blast waves from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) can enter the skull through the face.
“There’s a passageway through those soft tissues directly into the brain tissue, without having to go through bone or anything hard,” said Raul Radovitzky, an aeronautical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. [LiveScience]
In the study, which was published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers created their own computer model based on a real person’s brain scans; what they found actually contradicted findings from earlier, rougher models. A previous study, published in August, suggested that current helmet design actually increases brain injuries during an explosion by focusing and intensifying the blast waves inside the helmet.