Obscured beyond installation gates, an understated brown building here houses a state-of-the-art lab where a team of scientific researchers investigates “invisible war wounds” — long- and short-term effects of blast-induced mild traumatic brain injury, which has become increasingly prevalent in recent military conflicts.

Thuvan Piehler, a research chemist with the Army Research Laboratory’s Explosive Technology Branch, said her team’s critical experiments and data collection reveal brain damage thresholds necessary to develop, refine and test protective equipment.

“For mild traumatic brain injury there is currently no treatment available, so we need to assess the mechanism of injury to find out how we can mitigate it,” Piehler said.

Though pinpointing a brain injury mechanism is painstaking, the lab’s team of physicists, engineers and chemists has taken a multiscale approach to leverage unique explosive testing capabilities that closely resemble actual circumstances the warfighter might experience, she explained.

Smaller Experiments, Larger Results

The Army Research Laboratory’s specialized experiments use smaller explosives and offer cost-conscious, repeatable parameters to attain more reliable data and to complement strides made by the Veterans Affairs Department and the medical and academic communities. “When you use a smaller explosive, the duration will be different, but the advantage is that we can see similar impact compared to the big scale,” Piehler said.

For example, she cited the aquarium model used by researchers to depict the brain’s soft tissue, which floats in fluid.

“We designed the aquarium so that we can test in vitro what the brain cells actually experience under a very controlled environment and use it with real explosives,” Piehler said. “We are the only ones in the country to [conduct] these experiments, and that’s how they’ve been done for the last few years.”