By CNN National Security Producer Jennifer Rizzo
For the first time ever, MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) systems were deployed to a combat zone last month, ending an initiative by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps to obtain the technology for brain injury treatment in Afghanistan.
The military hopes the MRIs, machines that use magnetic fields and radio waves to take pictures of organs and structures in the body, will allow for "cutting-edge discoveries" in the diagnosis, treatment and follow-up care of servicemembers with traumatic brain injuries and concussions, according to U.S. Navy Medicine spokesman Capt. Cappy Surette.
While the MRIs are standard commercially-available systems, the support trailers for the machines were designed to endure "vast temperature swings, fine sand and power generation" in Afghanistan, according to Surette. The trailers also have to be shielded so that the systems will not interfere with military communication frequencies.
Until now, the closest MRI systems to Afghanistan were 3,000 miles away at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany, meaning it would take 14 days to acquire an MRI if one were required.
"MRIs have become the preferred study of choice for all brain and spinal cord conditions," said Dr. Allen Sills, an associate professor of neurosurgery at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. "For brain conditions an MRI will show immediate effects of damage such as a stroke or areas of brain damage. It's a much quicker way to acquire that information."
Sills says time is of the essence when diagnosing and treating a brain injury.
"We have a saying that time is brain tissue, meaning in many conditions, the more time that elapses, the more damage can occur," said Sills.
Many brain injuries will evolve over the first 24 to 48 hours, according to the doctor. The MRI systems could allow the medical team to make interventions to prevent secondary damage, essentially limiting the extent of the injury, he said.
The 70,000-pound machines were flown in using a mega-cargo aircraft, one of the largest planes in the world, then unloaded with a tractor-trailer. One MRI system was delivered to Kandahar Airfield base, another to Bagram Air Base, while a third system was sent to Camp Bastion, the main British military base in Afghanistan that cares for many U.S. and coalition wounded.
"Fielding MRIs into active combat theaters is unprecedented, as both logistics and clinical procedures had to be created," said Navy Surgeon General Vice Adm. Adam M. Robinson. "The fact that our team was able to design, acquire and deliver this new capability to the battlefield in less than 12 months is a testament to the commitment and creativity of the joint medical and logistics teams."