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War injury leads to advances at home

The military takes the lead in brain trauma research, giving hope to wounded civilians of a 'silent epidemic.'

October 05, 2009|Melissa Healy

A world away from the roadside bombs and combat injuries of Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans are suffering the same type of brain injury seen in troops coming home from those war-torn countries. On American roads, at workplaces and on playing fields, more than 11 million have been hurt since the fighting overseas started.

Almost 1 in 5 of these civilians will struggle with lingering, often subtle symptoms -- headaches, dizziness, concentration difficulties and personality changes -- for a year, and often longer. As their memories falter, their work suffers and their relationships fray, many victims of brain trauma don't realize that their cognitive struggles are related to a blow to the head.

In what has been called a silent epidemic, about 2% of the U.S. population -- 5.3 million people -- cope with long-term disabilities from such accidents.

Many returning U.S. troops know those symptoms well. In almost eight years of fighting in Afghanistan and more than six in Iraq, bomb blasts, vehicle crashes and other hazards of military duty are thought to have exacted between 48,000 and 360,000 traumatic brain injuries, mostly concussions, among service members.

But their epidemic has been anything but silent. Philanthropists have endowed centers to care for uniformed victims. Lawmakers have earmarked funds to research their affliction. And communities have rallied to help with their needs. The resulting recognition has brought some comfort to civilians who struggle with wounded brains.

Heavy investment

More important, the nation's military branches and veterans agency have stepped into a virtual funding void, investing heavily in research on brain injury and its aftermath. The combined surge of public attention and military largess, experts say, promises to bring civilian and military victims alike better means of diagnosing and treating brain trauma and limiting its toll.

"We're interested in finding solutions, no matter where they come from," says Dr. E. Melissa Kaime, a Navy captain who directs a program of medical research on priorities established by Congress. The office's budget, which represents a small fraction of defense funds going toward the study of brain injury, has set aside about $300 million in the last three years alone for research on the subject. In 2008, the Pentagon's total expenditure on brain-injury treatment and research was almost $1 billion.

The military research has prompted greater use of new medical imaging techniques that let doctors detect brain abnormalities they couldn't see before. Hand-held computer tests and back-pocket concussion-assessment cards -- devised for professional sports teams but refined and promoted by the military -- are making their way to the sidelines of youth sports. And military research has prompted trauma physicians to look for spasms in the brain's blood vessels after an injury -- a sign that more aggressive actions must be taken to avert death and post-traumatic epilepsy.

More improvements, including blood tests that could detect the severity of brain trauma, are on the horizon.

"Our motto is 'learn as we treat,' " says Col. Michael S. Jaffee, a physician who directs the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. "That allows us to better identify those things that need to be researched. And it allows those advances that do get developed to be translated into practice more quickly."

Military physicians may have initially turned to the civilian medical community -- in particular, to the neurologists and neurosurgeons who advise professional sports teams -- to guide their treatment of brain injury, says Dr. Jamshid Ghajar, a Cornell University neurosurgeon who directs the Brain Trauma Foundation. But now, the Pentagon's money, experience and team approach have turned the tables, making the military the leader in the field, he says.

"They will be, and they are, ahead of the civilian sector, and there's going to be a rapid transfer of knowledge," he adds.

A collaboration

The principal focus of the military's research has been on so-called mild traumatic brain injury, or concussion -- estimated to account for 4 in 5 of the brain injuries that affect veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. And though veterans may have additional challenges, including amputated limbs and post-traumatic stress disorder, their brain injuries have much in common with those sustained by civilian victims.

To improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of concussion, the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs Department have recruited widely.

They have mustered specialists who have never worked together and created collaborations among researchers who had never spoken to one another. They have enlisted sports medicine physicians, the grizzled veterans of brain injury. They have coaxed neuroscientists to glean insights about brain trauma from their studies of stroke, degenerative brain disease and mental illness.

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