www.thelancet.com/neurology Vol 7 August 2008
Moderate and severe traumatic brain injury in adults
Andrew I R Maas, Nino Stocchetti, Ross Bullock
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a major health and socioeconomic problem that aff ects all societies. In recent
years, patterns of injury have been changing, with more injuries, particularly contusions, occurring in older
patients. Blast injuries have been identifi ed as a novel entity with specifi c characteristics. Traditional approaches to
the classifi cation of clinical severity are the subject of debate owing to the widespread policy of early sedation and
ventilation in more severely injured patients, and are being supplemented with structural and functional
neuroimaging. Basic science research has greatly advanced our knowledge of the mechanisms involved in
secondary damage, creating opportunities for medical intervention and targeted therapies; however, translating
this research into patient benefi t remains a challenge. Clinical management has become much more structured
and evidence based since the publication of guidelines covering many aspects of care. In this Review, we summarise
new developments and current knowledge and controversies, focusing on moderate and severe TBI in adults.
Suggestions are provided for the way forward, with an emphasis on epidemiological monitoring, trauma
organisation, and approaches to management.
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) constitutes a major health
and socioeconomic problem throughout the world.1,2 It
is the leading cause of mortality and disability among
young individuals in high-income countries, and
globally the incidence of TBI is rising sharply, mainly
due to increasing motor-vehicle use in low-income and
middle-income countries. WHO has projected that, by
2020, traffi c accidents will be the third greatest cause of
the global burden of disease and injury.3 In higher
income countries, traffi c safety laws and preventive
measures have reduced the incidence of TBI due to
traffi c accidents,4 whereas the incidence of TBI caused
by falls is increasing as the population ages, leading to
a rise in the median age of TBI populations (table 1).
This has consequences for the type of brain damage
currently seen, and contusions (falls in older patients)
are becoming more frequent than diff use injuries
(high-velocity traffi c accidents in younger patients).
Violence is now reported as the cause of closed head
injury in approximately 7–10% of cases,9,10 a substantial
increase from earlier studies. The incidence of
penetrating brain injury is also increasing, particularly
in the USA, due to the use of fi rearms in violence-
related injuries. Worldwide, armed confl icts and
terrorist activities are causing more brain injuries, often
due to improvised explosive devices, to the extent that
blast injuries of the brain are now recognised as a
specifi c entity. The changing patterns of injury and
treatment approaches have challenged current concepts
of classifi cation. Moreover, basic research has greatly
advanced our knowledge of what happens in the brain
after TBI, off ering opportunities to limit processes
involved in secondary brain damage. However,
translating advances from basic research into clinical
benefi t has proven complex. Here, we discuss current
knowledge and novel insights and controversies in the
study of adults with moderate and severe TBI, with the
aim of integrating basic science and clinical research to
provide guidelines on the epidemiological monitoring
of TBI, trauma organisation, and management at the
Epidemiology and cost
In the USA, monitoring by the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention shows the annual incidence of
emergency department visits and hospital admissions
for TBI to be 403 per 100 000 and 85 per 100 000,
respectively.11 Epidemiological data on TBI from the
European Union are scarce, but do indicate an annual
aggregate incidence of hospitalised and fatal TBI of
approximately 235 per 100 000,12 similar to that found
in Australia,13 although substantial variation exists
between European countries. Most patients with TBI
have milder injuries, but residual defi cits in these
patients are not infrequent.14 Approximately 10–15% of
patients with TBI have more serious injuries, requiring
TBI is more common in young adults, particularly
men (75%), which causes high costs to society because
of life years lost due to death and disability. In Europe,
TBI accounts for the greatest number of total years
lived with disability resulting from trauma, and is
among the top three causes of injury-related medical
Lancet Neurol 2008; 7: 728–41
Department of Neurosurgery,
University Hospital Antwerp,
(A I R Maas MD); Neuroscience
Intensive Care Unit, Ospedale
Maggiore Policlinico, Milan
University, Milan, Italy
(N Stocchetti MD); and
Department of Neurosurgery,
University of Miami, Miller
School of Medicine, Miami, FL,
USA (R Bullock MD)
Andrew I R Maas, Department of
Hospital Antwerp, Wilrijkstraat
10, 2650 Edegem, Belgium
aged >50 years
UK four centre study61986–1988
Core Data Survey7
Austrian Severe TBI
1999–2003774 42 39%
1999–2004 415 48 45%
*Unpublished (Maas, AIR).
Table 1: Increasing age in TBI studies
www.thelancet.com/neurology Vol 7 August 2008 729
costs.15,16 In the USA, the fi nancial burden has been
estimated at over US$60 billion per year.17 These
numbers stand in stark contrast to the amount of
funding for TBI research, which has one of the highest
unmet needs within the already severely underfunded
fi eld of brain research.18
TBI can be isolated, but is associated with extracranial
injuries (limb fractures, thoracic or abdominal injuries)
in about 35% of cases,19 which increases the risk of
secondary brain damage due to hypoxia, hypotension,
pyrexia, and coagulopathy. The recording of the severity
of extracranial injuries should therefore form an
integral part of TBI classifi cation (panel).
Traditionally, TBI has been classifi ed by mechanism
(closed vs penetrating), by clinical severity (Glasgow
coma scale [GCS]20), and by assessment of structural
damage (neuroimaging;21 panel). The GCS has evolved
into a universal classifi cation system for the severity of
TBI, and consists of the sum score (range 3–15) of the
three components (eye, motor, and verbal scales). For
assessment of severity in individual patients, the three
components should be reported separately. A
standardised approach to assessment is advocated. If
painful stimuli are required to elicit a response, nail-
bed pressure and supraorbital pressure (to test for
localising) are recommended. Increasingly, in modern
practice, classifi cation of TBI by clinical severity is
limited. The level of consciousness might be obscured
in the acute setting by confounders such as medical
sedation, paralysis, or intoxication.22,23
Assessment of structural damage by neuroimaging is
not infl uenced by these confounders. Marshall and
colleagues21 proposed a descriptive system of CT
classifi cation, which focuses on the presence or absence
of a mass lesion, and diff erentiates diff use injuries by
signs of increased intracranial pressure (ICP; ie,
compression of basal cisterns, midline shift). However,
the Marshall classifi cation has limitations, such as the
broad diff erentiation between diff use injuries and mass
lesions, and the lack of specifi cation of the type of mass
lesion (eg, epidural vs subdural). Thus, this classifi cation
system might mask patients who have diff use axonal
injury (DAI) or signs of raised ICP in addition to a mass
lesion, and does not fully use the prognostic information
contained in the individual CT characteristics scored.24
Furthermore, CT can only capture momentary
snapshots of the dynamically evolving process of TBI,
and important lesions that occur at the microscopic
level, such as DAI and ischaemic damage, cannot be
visualised. Therefore, new surrogate markers for these
processes are needed. Such markers have revolutionised
cardiology (eg, troponin) and AIDS therapy, but have
not yet been established for TBI.
An alternative approach is to classify patients by
prognostic risk. Although not new, this is an approach
under development. Recent, well validated models,
developed on large patient samples, have become
available to facilitate this approach.25,26 Prognostic
classifi cation can serve as an objective basis for
comparison of diff erent TBI series, form the basis for
quality assessment of the delivery of health care, and
aid the analysis of clinical trials.27,28
Types of brain damage
TBI is a heterogeneous disorder with diff erent forms of
presentation. The unifying factor is that brain damage
results from external forces, as a consequence of direct
impact, rapid acceleration or deceleration, a penetrating
object (eg, gunshot), or blast waves from an explosion.
The nature, intensity, direction, and duration of these
forces determine the pattern and extent of damage.
On the macroscopic level, damage includes shearing
of white-matter tracts, focal contusions, haematomas
Panel: Approaches to classifi cation of TBI
Closed; penetrating; crash; blast.
Clinical severity: level of consciousness (Glasgow coma scale)
The GCS score comprises the values from three component tests (eye, motor, and verbal
scales). Injuries are classifi ed as severe (GCS 3–8), moderate (GCS 9–13), or mild (GCS 14–15).
• Eyes: 1=no response; 2=open in response to pain; 3=open in response to speech;
• Motor: 1=no response; 2=extension to painful stimuli; 3=abnormal fl exion to painful
stimuli; 4=fl exion/withdrawal to painful stimuli; 5=localises painful stimuli; 6=obeys
• Verbal: 1=no response; 2=incomprehensible sounds; 3=inappropriate utterances;
4=disoriented, confused; 5=oriented, converses normally
Clinical severity (injury severity score)
An abbreviated injury scale (range 0–6) is obtained for six body regions. The injury
severity score (range 0–75) is the sum of quadratic scores for each of the six body regions.
• Body regions: external (skin); head/neck (includes brain); thorax; abdomen/pelvis;
• Scores: 0=none; 1=minor; 2=moderate; 3=serious; 4=severe; 5=critical; 6=virtually
Structural damage (CT)
• Diff use injury I: no visible pathology
• Diff use injury II: cisterns present, midline shift 0–5 mm and/or lesion densities present
or no mass lesion >25 mL
• Diff use injury III (swelling): cisterns compressed or absent with midline shift 0–5 mm
or no mass lesion >25 mL
• Diff use injury IV (shift): midline shift >5 mm, no mass lesion >25 mL
• Evacuated mass lesion: any lesion surgically evacuated
• Non-evacuated mass lesion: High or mixed-density lesion >25 mL, not surgically
Classifi cation by expected outcome as calculated from prognostic models. Examples of
prognostic models can be found at the CRASH and IMPACT websites.
For more on the CRASH study
For more on the IMPACT study
www.thelancet.com/neurology Vol 7 August 2008
(intracerebral and extracerebral), and diff use swelling
(fi gure 1). At the cellular level, early neurotrauma events
(which can occur minutes to hours after initial injury)
include microporation of membranes, leaky ion
channels, and stearic conformational changes in
proteins. At higher shear rates, blood vessels can be
torn, causing (micro)haemorrhages.
DAI is characterised by multiple small lesions in
white-matter tracts. Patients with DAI are usually in
profound coma as a result of the injury, do not manifest
high ICP, and often have a poor outcome. Focal cerebral
contusions are the most common traumatic lesion, are
more frequent in older patients, and usually arise from
contact impact. Traumatic intracranial haematomas
occur in 25–35% of patients with severe TBI and in
5–10% of moderate injuries.
In static crush injuries and focal blows, much of the
energy is absorbed by the skull; thus, brain damage
might remain superfi cial, often with a depressed skull
fracture. Blast injuries have been identifi ed as a novel
entity within TBI.30,31 The pathological mechanism is
much less understood, but the injuries are characterised
by severe early brain
haemorrhage, and often prominent vasospasm.32,33
Outcome of severe blast injuries, even with aggressive
management, is still unknown, but has been encouraging
after debridement of wounds and aggressive control of
ICP, including decompressive surgery.
Ischaemic brain damage is often superimposed on
the primary damage (fi gure 1), and can be widespread
or, more commonly, perilesional. Impaired cerebral
perfusion and oxygenation, excitotoxic injury, and focal
microvascular occlusion can be contributing factors.34,35
Each type of head injury might initiate diff erent
pathophysiological mechanisms, with variable extent
and duration (fi gure 1). These mechanisms (acting
concurrently and often with synergising eff ects) and
the intensity of systemic insults determine the extent of
secondary brain damage. Secondary processes develop
over hours and days, and include neurotransmitter
release, free-radical generation, calcium-mediated
damage, gene activation, mitochondrial dysfunction,
and infl ammatory responses.
Glutamate and other excitatory neurotransmitters
exacerbate ion-channel leakage, worsen astrocytic
swelling, and contribute to brain swelling and raised
ICP. Neurotransmitter release continues for many days
after TBI in human beings, paralleling the course of
high ICP, and, with free-radical and calcium-mediated
damage, is a major cause of early necrotic cell death.
Early gene activation and release of proapoptotic
molecules (eg, caspases) induce apoptotic neuronal
loss. A third potential cause of cell death, autophagy,
might also play an important part.36,37
Infl ammatory response is an important component
of TBI, particularly around
(micro)haemorrhages. The maximum response occurs
within a few days, but cytokines are released from
microglia, astrocytes, and polymorphonuclear cells
within hours after TBI, leading to opening of the blood–
brain barrier, complement-mediated activation of cell
death, and the triggering of apoptosis. Although the
infl ammatory response can be deleterious in excess, it
is necessary in order to clean up cellular debris after
injury, and infl ammatory signals might also trigger
Contribution to secondary damage (%)
Figure 1: Components of TBI and importance of diff erent pathophysiological mechanisms
(A) The diff erent components of TBI with ischaemic damage are superimposed on the primary types of injury (haematoma, contusion, and diff use axonal injury).
Systemic insults and brain swelling contribute to ischaemic damage, which might in turn cause more swelling. (B) The relative importance of diff erent
pathophysiological mechanisms in various types of TBI. CPP=cerebral perfusion pressure. ICP=intracranial perssure. SDH=acute subdural haematoma. DAI=diff use
axonal injury. Adapted from Graham et al,29 with permission from Hodder Arnold.
www.thelancet.com/neurology Vol 7 August 2008 731
regeneration. Hence, infl ammation in TBI can be
thought of as both helpful and harmful.38
Recent research has raised new insights that challenge
existing concepts of pathophysiology. Mitochondrial
dysfunction can cause energy failure after TBI, with a
decrease in production of ATP and consumption of
oxygen by 40–50%. This can trigger opening of the
mitochondrial transition pore, setting off an autodestruct
phenomenon that induces both apoptosis and necrosis.39
Mitochondrial dysfunction might also lead to axonal
disruption. The classical concept that DAI is due to
mechanical rupture of axons, incompatible with
regeneration or repair, has now been abandoned.
Neurons can at least partially regenerate their axonal
anatomy. This accords with clinical observations that
patients with the hallmark features on CT of DAI can
recover with modern neurocritical care. Furthermore,
laboratory studies have shown that DAI can take up to
48 hours to become fully established and is thus
amenable to therapeutic interventions.40
Whether decreased cerebral blood fl ow (CBF) after
trauma is indicative of ischaemia or is secondary to
metabolic depression remains the subject of debate.
PET studies have attempted to clarify the eff ects of
hyperventilation, which lowers ICP by reducing CBF.
Some investigators have found that oxygen metabolism
is preserved,41 whereas others are more concerned that
ischaemia could be induced.42 A combined PET and
microdialysis study showed an increase in the oxygen
extraction fraction in only 1% of cases, whereas lactate
increases were seen in 25% of cases.43 These observations
are not consistent with the classical concept of
ischaemia, and indicate that other mechanisms
contribute to derangements of fl ow and metabolism.
Energy failure due to mitochondrial dysfunction and
diff usion barriers to oxygen delivery resulting from
cytotoxic oedema are likely to be involved. The role of
vasospasm is unclear. Although transcranial doppler
studies report fl ow velocity values suggestive of
vasospasm in up to 35% of patients,44 the correlation
with CBF is relatively poor.45
Head injury does not always implicate TBI. A diagnosis
of TBI is established on the basis of clinical symptoms:
for example, the presence of any documented loss of
consciousness and/or amnesia (retrograde or post-
traumatic). Additional clinical investigations can be
driven by the patient’s level of awareness, presence of
risk factors, and mechanisms of injury (fi gure 2).
CT is the preferred method of assessment on
admission to determine structural damage and to detect
(developing) intracranial haematomas. Traumatic
intracranial lesions occur frequently in severe and
moderate injuries, but are also reported in 14% of
patients with a GCS of 14.46 The risk of intracranial
lesions in patients with a GCS of 15 is generally low,
unless risk factors are present. Therefore, current
guidelines advocate CT examinations in all TBI patients
with a GCS of 14 or lower and in patients with a GCS of
15 in the presence of risk factors.47–49 Some studies have
successfully identifi ed risk factors for intracranial
lesions, such as vomiting, age, duration of amnesia,
injury mechanism, neurological
anticoagulant therapy.46,50,51 In the past, much attention
was focused on conventional radiographs of the skull to
triage indications for CT, but these are no longer
thought to be required. Fractures of the skull can be
defi cit, and
Findings consistent with
ICH; major vessel
Figure 2: Diagnostic approaches in TBI
GCS=Glasgow coma scale. ICH=intracerebral haematoma.
www.thelancet.com/neurology Vol 7 August 2008
seen adequately on CT in the bone-window setting, and
rendering techniques provide a far superior insight into
MRI studies are seldom done in the acute phase of
TBI because they are logistically complex and more
time consuming, and do not necessarily provide any
further information for clinical decisions. However,
MRI can be more informative if a penetrating injury
with a wooden object is suspected.52 In the subacute
and chronic phases of TBI, MRI is more informative
than CT, off ering better detection of white-matter
lesions in patients with DAI.53 Neuroimaging techniques
are rapidly progressing from purely structural
assessments to more functional imaging, off ering a
potentially better understanding of TBI.54
Because TBI is a dynamic process and pathology
evolves, follow-up CT is advisable if lesions were present
on the initial CT or if indicated by clinical deterioration.
New lesions develop in approximately 16% of patients
with diff use injuries,55 and 25–45% of cerebral
contusions will enlarge
occurrences are reported if the initial CT scan is done
within 2 hours of injury.57
Many clinics will usually follow up the patient on the
day after admission, but recent studies indicate that CT
progression will generally occur within 6–9 hours after
injury.58 Follow-up CT is always indicated if larger
lesions are present or if there is clinical deterioration or
increasing ICP.59 Indiscriminate and too frequent use
of CT follow-up are thought to be inappropriate. There
signifi cantly.55,56 Higher
is growing concern about the cancer risk connected to
CT radiation exposure, which is held responsible for
2% of all cancer cases in the USA,60–62 where more than
62 million CT scans, including 4 million in children,
are done each year. The need for CT follow-up should
thus be balanced against awareness of the cancer risk.
Specifi c injury mechanisms might cause vascular
lesions. Arterial dissections
intracranial) have been recognised in up to 17% of
patients with cervical spine injuries, and in those with
skull-base fractures involving the carotid canal.
Traumatic aneurysms are seen in about 15% of patients
with penetrating TBI.63 Consequently, in penetrating
brain injury, CT angiography is indicated in the
presence of an intracranial haematoma, or when a
missile tract, for example, crosses a major vessel
Guidelines and individualised management
Over the past 10 years, much of the treatment of TBI
has evolved towards standardised approaches that
follow international and national guidelines (table 2).
International guidelines for severe head injury are
mostly evidence based, and address specifi c aspects of
management. National guidelines focus more on
organisational issues, such as admission and referral
policy; however, these remain limited to the constraints
of existing trauma systems, and clear statements on the
best trauma organisation are often avoided.
Patel and colleagues71 unequivocally showed a 2·15
times increase in the odds of death (adjusted for case
Year of publication DescriptionType Topics (n)Recommendations (n)
Class I Class II Class III
Maas and co-workers59
1997European Brain Injury Consortium guidelines on management
of severe head injury in adults
Management of severe TBI (fi rst edition)
Management and prognosis of severe TBI
Penetrating brain injury
European Federation of Neurological Societies guidelines on
mild traumatic brain injury
Field management of combat-related head trauma
Surgical management of TBI
Revised guidelines for management of severe TBI
Italian guidelines for management of patients with minor
UK guidelines for the initial management of head injuries
Management of acute neurotrauma in rural and remote
locations of Australia
UK guidelines for triage, assessment, investigation, and
management of TBI
Consensus/expert opinion.. .... ..
Bullock and co-workers64*
Bullock and co-workers65
Brain Trauma Foundation*
Aarabi and co-workers63
Vos and co-workers47†
Adelson and co-workers66*
Brain Trauma Foundation*
Bullock and co-workers67*
Brain Trauma Foundation68*
Italian Society of Neurology46
Bartlett and co-workers69
Newcombe and Merry70
UK National Institute for Health
and Clinical Excellence48‡
2003Evidence based 273 16107
*http://www.braintrauma.org/. †http://www.efns.org/. ‡In the NICE guidelines (http://www.nice.org/), the grading scheme for level of recommendations was adapted from the Oxford Centre for Evidence Based
Medicine levels of evidence as level A–D; for consistency, we considered grade A as class I, grade B as class II, and grades C and D as class III.
Table 2: Overview of international and national guidelines
www.thelancet.com/neurology Vol 7 August 2008 733
mix) for patients with severe head injury treated in non-
neurosurgical centres versus neurosurgical centres.
Their report makes a strong case for transferring and
treating all patients with severe head injury in a setting
with 24-hour neurosurgical facilities. Most neurosurgical
centres in the UK are not equipped to receive all patients
with TBI because of shortages in human and technical
resources,72 and patients with TBI are referred only for
selected surgical indications. In light of these data, we
suggest that all treatable patients with TBI should be
centralised in large neurotrauma centres that off er
surgical therapy and access to specialised neurocritical
care.73–75 However, this cannot be achieved without
profound re-design of national health systems and re-
allocation of resources.76 A similar case has been made
in the USA: for example, in the state of Florida, which
has 20 million inhabitants, fi ve neurotrauma centres
have been designated to receive patients with severe
TBI and spinal-cord injuries. The concept here is that
greater volume (and hence experience) will lead to
higher quality services and better outcome.77–79
The evidence-based guidelines show that the strength
of supporting data is relatively weak, underscoring the
need for more rigorous evidence (table 2). However, for
various aspects of care in TBI, such as surgery for
epidural haematomas in patients with deteriorating
consciousness, randomised controlled trials are unlikely
to be considered ethical. Notwithstanding the great
benefi ts of evidence-based approaches, guidelines and
practice recommendations should not be made on the
basis of the conclusions of literature reviews alone.
Furthermore, we should recognise that no single
treatment can be uniformly appropriate across the wide
range of conditions within TBI, and this vision would
support the search for more individualised treatment
approaches (ie, determined by monitoring, biomarkers,
and possibly genotype).80
Approaches to management
Pre-hospital emergency care
The main goals of prehospital management are to
prevent hypoxia and hypotension, because these
systemic insults lead to secondary brain damage.68,81
When assessed before hospital admission (by
ambulance or helicopter crews), oxygen saturation
below 90% is found in 44–55% of cases and hypotension
in 20–30%.81–83 Trauma renders the brain more
vulnerable to these insults,84 and hypoxia and
hypotension are strongly associated with poor outcome
(hypoxia: odds ratio [OR] 2·1, 95% CI 1·7–2·6;
hypotension: OR 2·7, 95% CI 2·1–3·4).81
In various settings, the introduction of a pre-hospital
system capable of normalising oxygenation and blood
pressure has been associated with improved outcome.85,86
However, ensuring adequate training of paramedics is
vital because intubation by poorly trained paramedics
has been associated with worse outcome.87 Arterial
hypotension is best prevented by early and adequate
fl uid resuscitation with normotonic crystalloids and
colloids. No benefi ts have yet been shown for hypertonic
solutions,88 or for albumin, which has been associated
with worse outcome.89
The primary aims of admission care are stabilisation
and diagnostic assessment with prioritisation according
to US Advanced Trauma Life Support standards. From
a neurosurgical perspective, the immediate priority is
rapid detection and treatment of operable lesions.
Indications for emergency surgery in closed severe TBI
are summarised in the evidence-based surgical
guidelines.67 CT criteria, including volume, thickness,
and signs of mass eff ect (midline shift), are as relevant
as signs of neurological deterioration. A shift of
emphasis is continuing from the conventional approach
of surgery after neurological deterioration to a more
pre-emptive approach in which the aim of surgery is to
prevent deterioration. In penetrating TBI, a superfi cial
debridement and dural closure is recommended as
general standard of care,63 but in patients with small
entry wounds, simple wound closure may be
considered. This approach is much more conservative
than earlier policies of extensive debridement and
repeated surgery for removal of bone fragments with
the aim of preventing infection. There is no evidence
to support such aggressive approaches, and routine
antibiotic treatment is usually eff ective for infection
Intensive care management
A major focus for neurointensive care is to prevent and
limit ongoing brain damage and to provide the best
conditions for natural brain recovery by reducing brain
swelling and raised ICP. Optimum oxygenation,
perfusion, nutrition, glycaemic control, and temperature
homoeostasis are indicated, as in general intensive
care. However, the concern that the injured brain
cannot tolerate hypoglycaemia, which might result as
an adverse event from over-enthusiastic glycaemic
control, is specifi c to neurointensive care.90 Furthermore,
the brain must be protected from overt or silent
seizures. The benefi ts of prophylactic antiseizure
activity should be balanced against the potential risks.
Opinions vary greatly about routine antiseizure
prophylaxis, but recommended indications include
penetrating brain injury and the presence of a depressed
skull fracture in patients with post-traumatic amnesia
for more than 24 hours in whom a dural lesion is
Sedation and artifi cial ventilation are used to reduce
brain swelling and raised ICP in patients with severe
head injuries. In the 1990s, hyperventilation was
commonly used, which, although eff ective in reducing
ICP, has the risk of enhancing ischaemia.91 Arterial
www.thelancet.com/neurology Vol 7 August 2008
carbon dioxide lower than 30 mm Hg should be
avoided, unless facilities exist for more advanced
monitoring; osmotherapy is currently preferred as the
fi rst agent in the medical management of raised ICP,
and interest in early and extensive decompressive
craniotomies is increasing.
Rapid infusion of mannitol, which creates an osmolar
gradient, mobilises water across an intact blood–brain
barrier,92 but also improves focal CBF.93 Hypertonic
saline infusion creates an analogous, sometimes
stronger, osmolar gradient
improvement in ICP.94–96 When used for medical
management of raised ICP, hyperosmolar agents should
be administered repeatedly (at least every 4–6 hours) or
even continuously, because a rebound phenomenon
might otherwise occur after reversal of the osmotic
gradients by passing into the extracellular space of the
brain. Few studies have compared mannitol with
hypertonic saline.68,97 In one study in which short-term
administration of equimolar amounts of mannitol and
hypertonic saline were compared, hypertonic saline was
associated with a larger and more lasting ICP
However, use of osmotherapy, particularly for long
periods, is associated with electrolyte abnormalities,
especially hypernatraemia, cardiac failure, bleeding
diathesis, and phlebitis. No benefi ts of small-volume
resuscitation with hypertonic saline have been shown
in patients with TBI.88 Consequently, in adults, there is
insuffi cient evidence to support the use of hypertonic
saline over mannitol for osmotherapy. We caution
against the use of hypertonic saline because of the risks
of severe hypernatraemia, and advise particular caution
with the combined use of mannitol and hypertonic
saline. Careful control of fl uid balance, electrolyte
status, and serum osmolarity (<320 mMol/L) is
mandatory in the use of hypertonic agents.
Decompressive craniectomy has been used for more
than a century to treat brain swelling and reduce ICP,
and a resurgence of interest has recently been seen in
this practice, with 240 papers published between 1996
and 2006.99 Despite this renewed enthusiasm, the
technique remains controversial. It does not produce
improved outcome in all series,100 and has many side-
eff ects, some severe.101 The evidence is also confounded
by ambiguous defi nitions and a lack of focus. A clear
distinction should be made between true decompressive
craniectomy versus simple removal of a small bone
fl ap, and between procedures done in combination with
the evacuation of a mass lesion versus an isolated
However, there is consensus that the craniectomy
should be large enough (approximately 15 cm×15 cm)
in diff use injuries.
and should be done early and with duraplasty.102 Two
trials are currently ongoing:
(Randomised Evaluation of Surgery in Craniectomy for
Uncontrollable Elevation of Intracranial Pressure)
Study in Europe and the DECRA (Decompressive
Craniectomy) Study in Australia.103
Monitoring of the severely injured brain
Many patients develop progressive damage without
clear clinical signs; in others, damage develops at an
alarming pace, exemplifi ed by the so-called “talk and
die” syndrome.104,105 Neuroworsening, defi ned as a
deterioration of the GCS motor score, development of
pupillary abnormalities, or development of progressive
CT lesions, has been reported in 29–44% of patients.106–108
Clinical monitoring (level of consciousness and
pupillary reactivity) remains essential. However, more
severely injured patients are universally treated with
sedation and artifi cial ventilation, and advanced
monitoring of cerebral variables is required. Besides
standard systemic monitoring, ICP and cerebral
perfusion pressure monitoring are important. The
eff ectiveness of ICP monitoring in TBI has been
questioned;109,110 no monitoring technique can improve
outcome unless it can drive an appropriate intervention.
Intracranial hypertension develops in up to 77% of
cases, and raised ICP is related to poorer outcome.68
ICP monitoring carries a 0·5% risk of haemorrhage
and a 2% risk of infection. Intraventricular catheters
are preferable, because they are accurate, can be re-
calibrated, and allow drainage of CSF. Intraparenchymal
probes are user friendly and accurate.64 Less accurate
data are provided by subdural catheters,64,111 and epidural
probes are unreliable.112,113 The accuracy of ICP
monitoring can be enhanced by use of computer-
supported systems.114 Attempts to monitor ICP non-
invasively have been unsatisfactory.115,116
More advanced techniques include the monitoring of
microdialysis, and electrophysiological monitoring.
Cerebral oxygenation can be measured focally (brain
tissue oxygen tension) or, more globally, by measuring
the oxygen content in the cerebral venous outfl ow.
Brain tissue oxygen tension indicates the balance
between oxygen delivered to the tissue and its
consumption in a specifi c area, and can indicate
regional hypoxia if it falls below 15–20 mm Hg.117,118 The
diameter of microvascular vessels and diff usion barriers
might also infl uence recorded values.119,120 Venous
oxygen saturation is a more global approach to
monitoring oxygenation. Values below 55% indicate an
increased oxygen extraction relative to perfusion, and
suggest the presence of ischaemia.121,122 Non-randomised
studies have indicated benefi t of an oxygen-directed
Measurements of CBF have shown widespread zones
of brain ischaemia in a third of patients with severe
For more on the
RESCUEicp study see http://
www.thelancet.com/neurology Vol 7 August 2008 735
TBI, especially if done within 8 hours of TBI.124
Microsensor technology has recently been devised to
allow continuous blood fl ow monitoring within the
brain by use of thermal diff usion and laser doppler
Clinical microdialysis allows metabolic exploration of
the cerebral cortex in vivo. Within the fi rst few hours,
most patients with severe TBI have a high lactate:pyruvate
ratio, indicating ischaemia or hyperglycolysis.126–128 More
recently, microdialysis has been used to measure brain
penetration of drugs.129 Microdialysis, oxygen tension
catheters, and CBF probes can be used to assess events
in a small region, but possibly fail to detect harmful
events in other parts of the brain. Conversely, more
global approaches (venous oxygen saturation) fail to
detect regional abnormalities.41,130
Continuous electroencephalographic monitoring can
be used to identify occult seizure activity, which can
occur in 15–18% of patients with moderate and severe
TBI.131 In the research setting, interest exists in
monitoring cortical spreading depression. Traumatically
damaged neurons decrease
substantially in the early post-injury period. Waves of
depolarisation result in ionic fl ux and loss of resting
membrane potential, which worsens neurochemical
dysregulation, and places extra metabolic demands on
their fi ring rates
Outcome and prognosis
Outcome after head injury is generally assessed at
6 months after injury, representing a compromise
between true fi nal outcome and logistic limitations.
Experience shows that about 85% of recovery occurs
within this time period, but further recovery can occur
later. Accurate and consistent outcome determination
at a fi xed timepoint is a prerequisite for any TBI study.
The most frequently used global outcome measure in
TBI is the Glasgow outcome scale. More specifi c tools
are required for detailed examination, such as for
functional and neuropsychological assessment. These
are particularly relevant in the rehabilitation setting.
Early and intensive rehabilitation is recommended to
achieve the best possible functional outcome and social
re-integration. However, the optimum timing and
approach to rehabilitation of patients with TBI remains
to be determined.
In severe closed head injury, the outcome distribution
represents a U-shaped curve, with most patients either
dying or recovering to an independent lifestyle. This
has promoted dichotomisation of outcomes into
unfavourable (death, vegetative state, or severe
disability) versus favourable outcome (moderate
disability or good recovery). Recent studies using the
more detailed 8-point Glasgow outcome scale (extended
version), and a structured interview for its assessment,135
did not fi nd the typical
distribution.88,108 In non-military penetrating head
injury, mortality is consistently over 95% in patients
with a GCS of 3–5, raising ethical questions of whether
active treatment should be initiated, particularly if the
cause of injury was a suicide attempt.
The widespread belief that all patients in a vegetative
state are awake but not aware has been challenged.
Incidental reports on functional MRI studies show that
external stimuli can be processed in the human cortex
of some vegetative patients, and that even spoken
commands might elicit appropriate cortical responses
that are indistinguishable from normal human
responses.136 The implications are that caretakers should
be aware that the patient might hear, see, and realise a
lot more than is commonly thought, and the concept
that a vegetative state might be a worse outcome than
death has become uncertain.
Few TBI studies have used health-related quality of
life measures. Comprehensive
instruments for such assessment in people after TBI
are needed, such as the new disease-specifi c scale,
quality of life in brain injury (QOLIBRI).137
Many studies have reported on the univariate
association between predictors and outcome after TBI,
but few have used multivariate analyses, which adjust
for associations between predictors. Extensive work by
the IMPACT study group, which analysed individual
patient data from over 9000 patients with severe or
moderate TBI merged from 11 studies, confi rmed age,
GCS motor score, pupillary response, and CT
n Odds ratio (95% CI)
Abnormal fl exion
CT classifi cation
Traumatic subarachnoid haemorrhage
Data from Murray et al.138
Table 3: Predictors of outcome in TBI
www.thelancet.com/neurology Vol 7 August 2008
characteristics as the most powerful independent
prognostic variables (table 3).138 Other important
prognostic factors include hypotension, hypoxia, eye
and verbal components of the GCS, and laboratory
variables (glucose, platelets, and haemoglobin). Other
studies have shown an association between coagulopathy
and poorer outcome,35 indicating that more careful
attention to correcting these disturbances might be
For clinical application and research, the predictive
value of variables can be combined into prognostic
models. Many previously developed models had
shortcomings in development (in particular, a lack of
external validation),139,140 but more recently published
models have greater validity and generalisability.25,26
These models can provide a scientifi c basis for
informing relatives about the likely long-term outcome,
facilitate prognostic classifi cation and valid comparisons
of outcome between diff erent patient series, and enable
the setting of baselines for clinical audits. Furthermore,
prognostic models will have an important role in
randomised controlled trials for stratifi cation and
statistical analyses that explicitly consider prognostic
information, such as covariate adjustment.141
Neuroprotection and clinical trials
The original concept of neuroprotection involved the
initiation of treatment before the onset of the event,
and was aimed at minimising the intensity of an insult
or its immediate eff ects on the brain by interrupting the
harmful cascades of biochemical events. A major new
focus of neurobiology now revolves around cell
replacement, aimed at promoting neuroplasticity, and
regeneration or replacement of lost neuronal and glial
cells and neuronal circuits. Over the past 25 years, over
20 agents have been studied in phase III clinical trials
of severe TBI (table 4). Other strategies have focused on
the use of hypothermia and evaluation of a CBF-targeted
approach versus an ICP-directed approach.152
None of the phase III trials have convincingly shown
effi cacy in the overall study population (table 4).153,154
Various factors have contributed to these failures,
including uncertainty about validity and robustness of
preclinical phase II data, problems in translating results
from experimental studies to clinical practice,
uncertainty about whether
pathophysiological mechanisms targeted are indeed
active in individual patients, uncertainty about the
therapeutic window, and inadequacies in clinical trial
design and analysis. Multidisciplinary eff orts are
currently ongoing to implement approaches in trial
design for dealing with challenges posed by the
heterogeneity of TBI populations.155 Clinical trials in TBI
also pose specifi c ethical dilemmas that are not always
appreciated by policy-making authorities,156 and current
legislation is often perceived
Patients with TBI are often acutely incapacitated by
their injury and cannot always provide informed
consent. Proxy consent is generally substituted, but
does not serve to protect the patient’s autonomy, might
induce selection bias,157 and causes substantial delays
without off ering any real protection to the incapacitated
patient, often only providing some legal protection to
the trial sponsor.158 The validity of proxy consent in the
emergency situation of TBI is questionable because
many relatives are unlikely to be able to make a balanced
decision at a time of such emotional stress. Various
experts have therefore argued for deferred consent in
and when the
Here, we have illustrated the seriousness and complexity
of the problems posed by TBI to patients, relatives,
doctors, authorities, and society alike. Great
n Year of study Start of treatmentResults
1391996 ≤12 h 12% improvement in favourable
HIT I nimodipine143
HIT II nimodipine144
12 h of not obeying
24 h of injury
No signifi cant eff ect
No signifi cant eff ect in overall
HIT III nimodipine145
1231994 Signifi cant reduction in
No signifi cant eff ect
HIT IV nimodipine
452 1993–1995≤12 hNo signifi cant eff ect
693 1994–1996≤8 h and within 4 h
No signifi cant eff ect
No signifi cant eff ect
No signifi cant eff ect
Better outcome in men
Lipid peroxidation/free-radical damage
Tirilazad domestic trial
CRASH steroid trial150
No signifi cant eff ect
No signifi cant eff ect
No signifi cant eff ect
No signifi cant eff ect
No signifi cant eff ect
10 008 2000–2004 ≤8 h Higher mortality
No signifi cant eff ect
Poorer outcome at low dose;
higher mortality at high dose
HIT=Head Injury Trial. PESGOD=polyethylene glycol conjugated superoxide dismutase.
Table 4: Overview of phase III randomised clinical trials in TBI
www.thelancet.com/neurology Vol 7 August 2008 737
advancements have been achieved over the past
10–15 years, but advances in basic science have not yet
led to new treatments of clinically proven benefi t, and
advanced monitoring has not routinely resulted in
individualised management. Current classifi cation
systems are no longer suffi cient and not all patients
have access to the best care. Clinical trials in TBI have
had methodological problems posed by the inherent
heterogeneity of the TBI population, and we note a
disconnection between ethical directives and their
validity and applicability in the emergency situation of
acutely incapacitated patients with TBI. Therefore, a
great deal is still to be accomplished. From the
perspective of clinicians, we would suggest that the
following topics are prioritised.
First, standardised epidemiological monitoring should
be implemented to off er a sound basis for appropriate
targeting of prevention. Second, a specifi c focus should
be directed towards trauma organisation with
concentration of care for more severely injured patients
in specialised centres. The specifi cs of the best structure
might vary with the local setting, but we strongly feel
that there is now suffi cient evidence to prove the benefi ts
of centralisation. This centralisation should form a
continuum from emergency systems through to
rehabilitation care. Third, we suggest that further
dissemination of existing guidelines should form the
basis for standards of care, but recommend an additional
strong focus on more individualised treatment, targeting
the specifi c needs of a given patient. This approach will
require advanced diagnostics and monitoring, thus
allowing identifi cation of pathophysiological alterations.
These diagnostic procedures could include the use of
biomarkers and genotyping. As in the acute phase,
specialised facilities and concentration of care are
necessary in the post-acute setting, off ering appropriate
rehabilitation programmes, and exploring strategies for
promoting recovery and regeneration.
These goals cannot be achieved without more basic
and clinical research. Multiple mechanisms of TBI have
been identifi ed in the experimental setting, but much
more needs to be elucidated. From a research
perspective, attention might focus on the cerebrovascular
interface and mechanisms of energy failure after TBI.
Notwithstanding the importance of basic science,
clinically oriented research with therapeutic trials is
needed, perhaps based more on an integral concept or
combined approaches, rather than focusing on the
possible benefi t of agents that target a single
pathophysiological mechanism among the many other
processes. The methods used in TBI clinical trials
require refi nements, including the implementation of
approaches to deal with the inherent heterogeneity of
TBI populations. Whatever route is taken or priorities
chosen, advancing the fi eld further will require great
multidisciplinary eff orts
clinicians, facilitated by appropriate funding.
from researchers and
All authors contributed equally to the preparation of this Review.
Confl icts of interest
The authors are members of the European and American Brain Injury
Consortia. AIRM has been a consultant and a member of steering
committees for clinical trials in TBI for Pharmos, Solvay, Vasopharm,
and Novo Nordisk. NS has been a member of steering committees or
safety boards for clinical trials in TBI for Pharmos, Solvay, Vasopharm,
We dedicate this Review to the memory of Bryan Jennett (1926–2008),
who inspired us to devote a large part of our lives and work to TBI. He
was one of the founding leaders of neurotrauma research and a great
inspiration to all around him. Many of the concepts and insights
developed by him in the 1970s are still in use today. We thank our co-
workers and partners in research, both within their own institutes and
within the American and European Brain Injury Consortia. We are
grateful to Beverly Walters for help in editing the manuscript, to Paul
Parizel for advice on neuroradiological items, and to Anne-Claire van
Harderwijk for administrative support. AIRM is a recipient of a NIH
grant (NS-042691) supporting methodological and clinical research in
TBI, and RMB is funded by the US Department of Defense.
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