Occupants of military vehicles targeted by explosive devices often suffer from traumatic brain injury (TBI) and are typically transported by the aeromedical evacuation (AE) system to a military medical center within a few days. This study tested the hypothesis that exposure of rats to AE-relevant hypobaria worsens cerebral axonal injury and neurologic impairment caused by underbody blasts.
Anesthetized adult male rats were secured within cylinders attached to a metal plate, simulating the hull of an armored vehicle. An explosive located under the plate was detonated, resulting in a peak vertical acceleration force on the plate and occupant rats of 100G. Rats remained under normobaria or were exposed to hypobaria equal to 8,000 feet in an altitude chamber for 6 hours, starting at 6 hours to 6 days after blast. At 7 days, rats were tested for vestibulomotor function using the balance beam walking task and euthanized by perfusion. The brains were then analyzed for axonal fiber injury.
The number of internal capsule silver-stained axonal fibers was greater in animals exposed to 100G blast than in shams. Animals exposed to hypobaria starting at 6 hours to 6 days after blast exhibited more silver-stained fibers than those not exposed to hypobaria. Rats exposed to 100% oxygen (O2) during hypobaria at 24 hours postblast displayed greater silver staining and more balance beam foot-faults, in comparison with rats exposed to hypobaria under 21% O2.
Exposure of rats to blast-induced acceleration of 100G increases cerebral axonal injury, which is significantly exacerbated by exposure to hypobaria as early as 6 hours and as late as 6 days postblast. Rats exposed to underbody blasts and then to hypobaria under 100% O2 exhibit increased axonal damage and impaired motor function compared to those subjected to blast and hypobaria under 21% O2. These findings raise concern about the effects of AE-related hypobaria on TBI victims, the timing of AE after TBI, and whether these effects can be mitigated by supplemental oxygen.