BME researchers track brain health with light

Measuring the pressure inside the skull — called intracranial pressure — is essential for properly and safely treating traumatic brain injuries. Carnegie Mellon researchers Jana Kainerstorfer and Alexander Ruesch have developed a new way to monitor intracranial pressure that is far less invasive than current methods.

Traumatic brain injuries, often caused by car accidents, falls, or infections, are common but dangerous. When a patient suffers a traumatic brain injury, their brain can swell, cutting off blood vessels and doing brain damage that can be permanent or even fatal.

Doctors can watch out for the signs of swelling by monitoring intracranial pressure. This usually means performing surgery to drill a hole in the patient’s skull, a procedure that is both involved and invasive.

Kainerstorfer, an assistant professor in the Biomedical Engineering department, and Ruesch, her PhD student, are working on implementing a less invasive procedure that uses light to measure intracranial pressure.

Their method uses optical fibers to send near infrared light into the brain, where it penetrates the skin and skull to reach blood vessels. Some of the light is reflected back out. By measuring the proportion of light that’s reflected, they can monitor changes in the amount of blood flowing through the brain.

As in the current standard monitoring procedure, doctors can intervene if that amount dips below healthy levels.

“If we can replace a very risky, invasive surgery and still get the information we need by shining light into a patient’s head, that would be much safer and much more cost-efficient. A non-invasive approach would be helpful for patients who are bedridden and need their brain to be constantly monitored. With our system, physicians won’t have to worry about jeopardizing the safety of their patients,” said Ruesch in a university news release.

Kainerstorfer and Ruesch will soon implement their method to help pediatric brain trauma patients recover at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.