[ skip to content ]

ODU Grad's Dissertation Constructs Computer Model of Shaken Baby Symptoms, Featured in Prestigious Journal

An Old Dominion University graduate's study, predicting the force of a shake needed to cause shaken baby syndrome, was featured recently in the preeminent journal for the field of ophthalmology.

Steven Hans, who received his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from ODU in August 2007, created a computer model to calculate at what point damage to a baby's eye would occur following an incident of abuse.

Hans' findings, reached under the supervision of mechanical engineering associate professor Sebastian Bawab, appeared in the April edition of Graefe's Archive for Clinical and Experimental Ophthalmology.

The article is based on Hans' doctoral dissertation. Hans, who currently works as a private consultant based in Chesapeake, had wanted to do a dissertation in mechanical engineering that had a biomechanical component.

"Rather than traditional mechanical engineering, it seemed like new territory, incorporating biology with mechanical engineering," he said.

A retired Norfolk State University professor, Michael L. Woodhouse Ph.D., linked Hans up with a pediatrician, Suzanne Starling, M.D., at Eastern Virginia Medical School, Division of Child Abuse Pediatrics, who was interested in the subject of shaken baby syndrome. Starling realized the benefit of a predictive model in assessing SBS through retinal hemorrhaging.

Doctors have traditionally detected abuse in infants through damage to the eye, known as bilateral hemorrhaging. What Hans and Bawab wanted to determine was how the force of a shake, or fall, could be reflected in the extent of the hemorrhaging.

But first, the two engineers had to get up to speed on a wealth of medical research.

"You had to read all the clinical research that has been done, and educate yourself on retinal terminology," Hans said. "You had to have a very good understanding of the medical knowledge of the eye to make your assumptions."

Based on previous biomechanical studies about shaken baby syndrome, and the material properties of a typical baby's eye, Hans built a complex geometrical model of an infant's eye in an effort to simulate what effect certain types of sudden movements would have.

The findings were stark.

Hans and Bawab were able to calculate that violent shaking back and forth has four to five times more impact than when a baby falls on his head. "And every shake builds up," Hans said.

The two used dynamics to "apply the laws of physics to medical concepts," Bawab notes.

"We wanted to see if a child falls accidentally, something that is often cited as a rationale when there is retinal hemorrhaging, how would that affect the retina differently?

"It was just amazing, the difference."

Bawab said this type of research, pairing the laws of physics and medical concepts, has many applications beyond Hans' study - everything from automobile crash technology to athletic injuries.

Hans and Bawab hope to take the "shaken baby" study further, perhaps turning it into a tool investigators can use in detecting abuse.

This article was posted on: May 29, 2009

Old Dominion University
Office of University Relations

Room 100 Koch Hall Norfolk, Virginia 23529-0018
Telephone: 757-683-3114

Old Dominion University is an equal opportunity, affirmative action institution.