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Exploding Pig Eyes Might Hold the Key To Protecting Soldier's Vision

The secret to saving the vision of combat GIs facing IEDs could just be in the exploding eyes of pigs.
Image: DVIDSHUB/Flickr

While a pig’s eyeball is considered a delicacy in some places, a team of scientists in Texas have been using the animal body parts to study how bomb blasts affect soldiers' eyes.

The San Antonio Express News reported that scientists at the University of Texas at San Antonio have been using pigs eyes to conduct experiments on the effects of Improvised Explosive Devices blasts on the eyes of human soldiers.

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As the video above shows, scientists in the laboratory basement of Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston place the pig eyes in a gelatinous encasing meant to recreate the human eye socket. From there they expose the eyes to a concussive force strong enough to recreate the bomb blast of an IED, to figure out whether or not the blast alone, without shrapnel or flying debris, is capable of damaging soldiers' sight long-term.

The scientists hope to gain some insight into making better protective eyewear for soldiers. Currently, models of eyewear for the average soldier act as a shield to protect against flying particles, something that could change if the UTSA research is successful. New wear would require protection against the shock wave that dislodges the retina causing blindness or severe vision loss.

Undertaken with a $1 million worth of Department of Defense funding, the experiments take place in a soundproof room with something the San Antonio Express describes as a “giant air cannon” aimed at the dead eye. Through a series of sensors researchers can figure out different readings to analyze the damage in the eye. And pig eyes make the ideal candidate as replacement human ones, because of the striking anatomical similarities between the two species.

Since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars taught the US Army the difficulties of urban combat—and with it the hidden mania of IED blasts—preventative technologies focusing on soldier safety have become in vogue for military engineers. In fact, one University of Washington neuroscience investigation described IED blast injuries, related to the brain as “the signature injury in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

With a barrel full of rocks, broken glass, and a rigged up artillery round, insurgent bomb makers could hold up an entire company of Humvees or kill dozens of soldiers. Not to mention the psychological effects that ripple through soldiers traveling in convoys along highways wondering when the next blast will occur. And besides blowing limbs and killing soldiers, IEDs are also known to send small but impactful concussive shocks connected with triggering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

To tackle soldier safety the DoD has several projects in the works. With the possibility of an Iron Man suit for special forces operators—a suit generals hope will make their soldiers invincible to enemy attacks—the US Army has poured money into next generation combat helmets that look like Halo prototypes fit with futuristic eye and head protection. Fresh off the purchase of 90,000 helmet units from Revision Military, new American helmets integrate blast and shockwave protection, as well as new protective eyewear.

When the Iraq war first broke out, eye injuries accounted for 25 percent of US Army injuries, and since, the Pentagon has spent millions on new gear to lower those figure significantly. Clearly there's work still to be done—and perhaps a lot more pig eyeballs.