According to MSNBC, military leadership estimates that as high as 20% of the troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq may have some form of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). TBI symptoms can range from those of a mild concussion (such as headaches or blurred vision) to the very severe (seizures, change in personality, repeated nausea or vomiting, weakness in the body, confusion, and others). While there is treatment available for some of the symptoms of TBI, there is no way to repair the actual damage done to the brain.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is currently working to change that. DARPA is developing a new technology called REPAIR (Reorganization and Plasticity to Accelerate Injury Recovery. This technology would aid veterans who suffer from TBI by repairing brain damage through the use of electrical implants on the surface of the brain. The implants will use a science called “optogenics” to send out pulses of light that directly trigger individual neurons, repairing the neural pathways that are broken by TBI.
The project is in the early stages of clinical trials. However, if researchers are successful, there could someday be new hope for affected veterans and their families. For more on this research, check out the full article on WIRED.
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This past week the LA Times ran a great three-part series on traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). TBIs are of course a major issue among veterans and active service members, with between 48,000 and 360,000 TBIs estimated among OEF/OIF service members.
The first article discusses the military’s efforts to develop ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat TBIs, utilizing innovations from the field of sports medicine. Among these new practices include new, more protective helmets; neuroprotectants (drugs which increase the brain’s resistance against physical trauma); the introduction of testing for genetic predisposition to brain injury; the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and the identification of biomarkers (e.g., proteins in the blood whose presence would indicate a TBI) to diagnose brain injuries; and, quite simply, more frequent and thorough testing for TBIs. You can read the full article here.
The second article tells the story of Larry Carr, a sergeant in the Army National Guard who was struck by a blast of shrapnel to his head when a roadside bomb exploded by the Humvee he was riding in. Though Carr successfully underwent surgery to have the shrapnel removed and preliminary testing showed no damage to his brain, after he was discharged he experienced symptoms such as headaches, unprovoked anger, and forgetfulness. His symptoms were even misdiagnosed as PTSD until more in-depth cognitive testing revealed that Carr had indeed sustained a TBI. Only then was he able to undergo treatment for his now accurately-diagnosed condition. You can read more about Larry’s story here.
The final article details the ways in which the military is taking the lead in researching new methods diagnosing and treating TBIs. In 2008, the Pentagon spent almost $1 billion on TBI-related research.
“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.”
Read the full article here.
Adm. Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is pushing for a proposal which would pull a soldier out of combat duty after experiencing a number of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) exceeding an established limit, likely to be set at three. The solider would be placed on bases performing non-combat duties for the remainder of their tour of duty.
TBIs, or concussions, are injuries frequently caused by roadside bombs. An estimated 150-400 soldiers would be pulled from combat duty over a period of several months in Afghanistan, where roadside bombs remain a major problem. Mullen’s policy is based on research that links multiple mild TBIs to a greater likelihood for brain damage. Mullen likens the danger surrounding TBIs to that of Agent Orange, used in Vietnam.
“It’s not an exact analogy,” Mullen said during the Harvard Medical School speech. “But it’s one that resonates with me because there’s so much to learn (about long-term blast-related effects on the brain).”
Read the full article here.