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updated 12/21/2011 6:21:12 PM ET 2011-12-21T23:21:12

Battlefield blasts that leave soldiers dazed can prove lethal if they have caused bleeding in the brain and the diagnosis isn't made in time to treat it. Now, more U.S. military lives may be saved after the Food and Drug Administration's approval last week of the first handheld device to detect life-threatening brain bleeding.

The battery-powered Infrascanner could put the diagnostic power of a hospital's computed tomography (CT) machines into the hands of U.S. military corpsmen and medics at sea or on distant battlefields. A quick diagnosis can make all the difference between life and death for U.S. Navy sailors and U.S. Marines, who may fight far from hospitals or aboard smaller Navy ships that don't carry such medical scanners.

"If it goes undiagnosed and things look normal, and maybe a day later, you die of cerebral hemorrhage," said Michael Given, program manager for expeditionary medicine at the Office of Naval Research. "And it could be because people have a headache and then take aspirin — that interferes with the coagulation cascade, so they start bleeding even more."

That makes the Infrascanner "almost essential" for combat casualty care, Given said. The need for such a device led the Office of Naval Research to initiate and fund the project carried out by Philadelphia-based InfraScan.

The Infrascanner works by detecting near-infrared light that penetrates the skull. Blood pooling in parts of the brain absorbs light differently from the oxygenated blood that typically circulates inside blood vessels, and the device can pick up on that difference.

"You can do the whole scan in a minute or so," Given explained. "We tried to make it simple. Just a red/green-lighted-spot kind of display. So: Red, you’re in trouble; green, everything's great. There are three sizes of red dots so you can tell if the bleeding is progressing. Simple and effective."

Bleeding in the brain reflects the damage of traumatic brain injury that affects many U.S. veterans and their families long after their deployment. Battlefield blasts may leave survivors with problems in memory and reasoning, sensory perception, communication ability and emotional well-being. Epileptic seizures and early onset of brain disorders can also arrive with age.

"When a brain injury occurs, every moment without an accurate assessment can determine a person's risk" of severe injury or death due to a brain bleed, said Theresa Rankin, a traumatic-brain-injury survivor who works with Brain Injury Services.

The Marines have already begun testing a more rugged version of the device to survive exposure to water, sand and salt-spray corrosion. If it passes the tests, the Infrascanner could singlehandedly begin cutting down one of the leading causes of death and injury for U.S. military service members.

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