As communities gathered to commemorate our nation’s freedom and independence this July 4th it is important to know that military veterans who return from deployment often suffer injuries not only of body but also of mind.
The Veterans Administration Hospital at Fort Miley on Clement Street in the Richmond District of San Francisco, CA is a leader in the treatment of what is known as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
This past June 17th, NCIRE-The Veterans Health Research Institute held a conference entitled “The Brain at War,” to discuss and raise awareness of the advances made in diagnosing and treating brain trauma.
NCIRE, a nonprofit research institute located at the San Francisco VA, mounted the conference in cooperation with with University of California, San Francisco and the United States Department of Defense.
The Commandant’s Ballroom at the Marines Memorial Club & Hotel on Sutter Street in San Francisco was filled to capacity as medical and military personnel highlighted the importance of addressing the “unseen wounds” that impact soldiers’ lives and that of their families when returning from deployments overseas.
“It takes about 10 years to advance a technology,” said Col. Karl Friedl, PhD, director of the US Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center. He presented the opening remarks of the one-day conference. “The VA with the cooperation of many others has made brain injury a primary focus,” he said.
Col. Friedl also noted that during the 1990’s the decade of the brain began. As neurological-science advanced with increasing technology, this provided doctors views of the brain with an ability to collect data. Allowing medicine to move forward, “now it’s easier to recognize, study and diagnose injuries that before were unseen,” he added.
Over 22 speakers made presentations throughout the day to an attentive and enthusiastic crowd who were well acquainted with veterans needs.
US Army Brigadier General Loree Sutton, MD noted that since its inauguration in 2008, “The Brain at War” conference has grown into a premier summit of extraordinary leaders and advocates from many institutions and fields of expertise. “Over the past three years, $6 million has been invested and we are reaping the benefits of this research,” she said.
In a keynote address, Brigadier General James Lukeman of the US Marine Corps praised those tremendous strides, but said he believed that more must be done now, not five or 10 years from now. “Soldiers are suffering today, their symptoms keep growing becoming more intense,” he said. General Lukeman is Military Assistant to General James F. Amos, Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps.
Many who spoke at the conference emphasized that research must quickly be implemented in order to meet the ever-increasing need. Soldiers returning from deployment on the battle field are vulnerable.
In previous times, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was considered “shell shock” or “battle fatigue,” and soldiers were expected to “suck it up, be brave and carry on.”
But that attitude is obsolete. Since the war in Vietnam, it has become increasingly clear that PTSD is a real disease that is associated with physical changes in the brain and body. With the advent of improved imaging systems, traumatic brain injury (TBI) is now also better understood.
Much of the difficulty is the efficiency of the tools used in detecting the unseen. Magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography have broken new ground in brain imaging.
Yet currently, MRI and PET scans can only used only in verifying that a soldier has a traumatic injury to the brain. At this point, they are not able to provide more intricate details.
How do MRI and PET scans work?
Dr. Michael W. Weiner MD who is the Director, Center for Imaging of Neurodegenerative Disease at the VA later explained, “MRI works using radio waves and magnetic fields. PET scans detect glucose up-take in the brain by use of a radioisotope.”
These tools are vital but can only go so far, according to Dr. James P. Kelly MD, Director of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence for the US Dept. of Defense.
This is why new protocols such as Military Acute Concussion Evaluations (or MACE forms) are being implemented to recognize symptoms of concussions which signify brain injury.
“We must document the soldiers’ history on the field, record events and symptoms,” said Kelly. Loss of memory/concentration, sudden irritability, and depression can be overlooked, permitting a soldier to return to battle, he noted.
The combined efforts at NCIRE, UCSF, the DoD and the VA aim to change that, with the goal of improving the quality of life for veterans, troops, and their families. For more info visit: http://www.ncire.org or call: 415-750-6954.
Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt - 2010
Courtesy of NCIRE – The Veterans Health Research Institute