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01.13.2016

Brain dysfunction seen in vets with repeated blast exposures

Changes in neuron activity is akin to that of boxers; researchers help bridge knowledge gap about combat injuries

By Bobbi Nodell  |  HSNewsBeat  |  Updated 11:00 AM, 01.13.2016

Posted in: Research

  • Researchers observed chronic changes in neuron activity in specific areas of the brain in combat veterans exposed to multiple blasts. ThinkStock

Mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) has been called the signature injury of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Worldwide, more than a quarter-million U.S. service members have been diagnosed with mTBI. Numerous reports show that many veterans exposed to explosions have suffered mTBIs, but exactly how their brains are affected has been unclear.

A team of brain injury experts led by researchers at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System and UW Medicine have found that the more blasts veterans are exposed to, the more they show chronic changes in neuron activity in specific brain regions. They also found that in mild blast-exposed mice, neurons are lost in the same brain regions. The pattern of loss is similar to findings in retired boxers first seen more than 40 years ago.

The findings, “Repetitive Blast Exposure in Mice and Combat Veterans Causes Persistent Cerebellar Dysfunction,” published Jan. 13 in Science Translational Medicine, are helping to uncover the mysteries of how combat veterans have been injured by repetitive blast exposure. These results can help guide the search for more effective treatments, the researchers said.

“There is a huge gulf separating our understanding of what kind of brain injuries develop because of mild blast and how they relate to the neuroimaging changes many research groups have detected,” said David Cook, VA scientist and UW research associate professor of medicine and pharmacology. “The similarities we see in the pattern of neuron injury in the cerebellum of mice, the neuron loss previously seen in boxers, and our neuroimaging findings in veterans is a step toward reducing this knowledge gap.”

Study author Elaine Peskind, co-director of the Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Center at VA Puget Sound, said TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are the invisible wounds of war and that 75 percent of the mTBI patients she treats also have PTSD. Although the cerebellum is best known as the part of the brain that coordinates movements, researchers now believe that the cerebellum can also influence a person’s emotional state.

“Problems with mood, irritability and impulsivity are very common in our mTBI veterans,” said Peskind. “These findings suggest we should pay more attention to how mTBI affects the cerebellum if we want to fully understand the emotional difficulties experienced by veterans with mTBI.”

First author James Meabon, VA scientist and UW acting assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, is a U.S. Army veteran infantryman and said he is determined to help veterans.

“Something is going on with them that they don’t understand and, at this point, neither do we,” he said. “We have a lot of work ahead, but these results are a step in the right direction.”

Media contact: Bobbi Nodell, 206.543.7129, bnodell@uw.edu

Tagged with: PTSD, TBI, traumatic brain injury, veterans
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