It was a full-house attendance at the fifth annual “Brain at War” conference on June 21 as the Northern California Institute of Research and Education (NCIRE) presented the latest information on traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress.
Attendance has continued to grow in the past five years as the need to address and examine the subject of the hidden wounds of war becomes more critical. “More than two million soldiers and military personnel have served in combat since the war in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Aoife O’Donovan, PhD who was among the two-dozen or more speakers at the all-day conference.
One very important focus of the “Brain at War” gathering is the impact Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has upon military personnel as they return to duty or to civilian life. Researchers can now pinpoint the effects of PTSD, which was formerly known as “battle fatigue.” This is mostly due to the advances in technology. Digital imaging, mapping of the brain, study of various cells and DNA all are moving forward. This is fascinating news to biotech companies like Amgen a leader in developing medicine and medical therapies. A member of the Amgen science team was among the more than 170 in attendance for that morning. Military officials are pleased that colaboration with civilian teams such as UCSF Medical Center and others is going well. It was said at previous conferences that officials hope more collaboration and partnership will continue and will include industry and business.
At previous gatherings, all held at the Marines’ Memorial Club and Hotel on Sutter Street in downtown San Francisco, the emphasis was to get the dialog to focus on the facts of PTSD and that traumatic brain injury is real even if at first glance there seems to be little physical evidence of such.
Working in conjunction with the San Francisco Veterans Administration Medical Center at Fort Miley, the University of California, San Francisco and the United States Department of Defense the “Brain at War” conference has continued to foster strides in maintaining an open dialog on the subject of brain injury and research into effective treatment.
Yet as Dr. Thomas Neylan, MD the director of Stress and Health Research at SFVAMC and others pointed out, the stigma of PTSD still exists. While trauma can be difficult to measure, with today’s technology the steps to understanding the brain in more detail are clearer.
The use of magnetic resonance imaging is one of the ways doctors and researchers can get a glimpse at the effects of brain injury. Among the six programs presented for discussion that Thursday was the “issues and challenges of Women Warriors.”
The numbers of women serving in combat has increased and as O’Donovan pointed out, PTSD impacts women differently than it does men. In the military today 15 percent of personnel in uniform are women and perform at 91 percent of all US Army jobs.
Since the Iraq/Afghanistan conflict more women go to a VA hospital or clinic than men. Yet over-all, “women are not as studied (as much as men are),” noted Dr. Karen Seal, MD founder of the SFVAMC Integrated Care Clinic. The entire purpose of the clinic is to better serve and understand the health needs of veterans, including those with PTSD and other trauma related conditions.
PTSD not only has an impact upon an individual returning from combat, it also has an affect upon families of veterans and the communities they live in. Learning more about PTSD, especially as it affects women, is crucial “as the long-term effects can result in increased immune deficiency, depression, pre-mature aging and Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia,” O’Donovan said to attendees at the morning session.
O’Donovan and others noted that combat releases stress hormones that affect the body. Initially the release of hormones, adrenaline and such are part of the body’s normal response, but the continual manifestation of these hormones is not. Research is now underway to try to find ways to help decrease stress and restore the body and the brain.
Dr. Neylan, O’Donovan and others are optimistic that researchers will discover more as technology and techniques continue to advance. “We have now learned that ‘one-size does not fit all’ attitude is not effective when treating the needs of women impacted by PTSD,” said O’Donovan.
For more information about the annual “Brain at War” conference and NCIRE – Veterans Health Institute visit the NCIRE website.