Hunting Signs of soldiersAE Brain Injuries, Stress Disorders

Article excerpt

Byline: Lauran Neergaard Associated Press

Powerful scans are letting doctors watch just how the brain changes in veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and concussionlike brain injuries u signature damage of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

ItAEs work that one day may allow far easier diagnosis for patients u civilian or military u who today struggle to get help for these largely invisible disorders. For now it brings a powerful message: Problems too often shrugged off as "just in your head" in fact do have physical signs, now that scientists are learning where and how to look for them.

"ThereAEs something different in your brain," explains Dr. Jasmeet Pannu Hayes of Boston University, who is helping to lead that research at the Veterans AffairsAE National Center for PTSD. "Just putting a real physical marker there, saying that this is a real thing," encourages more people to seek care.

Up to one in five U.S. veterans from the long-running combat in Iraq and Afghanistan is thought to have symptoms of PTSD. An equal number are believed to have suffered traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs u most that donAEt involve open wounds but hidden damage caused by explosionAEs pressure wave.

Many of those TBIs are considered similar to a concussion, but because symptoms may not be apparent immediately, many soldiers are exposed multiple times, despite evidence from the sports world that damage can add up, especially if thereAEs little time between assaults.

"My brain has been rattled," is how

a recently retired Marine whom Hayes identifies only as Sgt. N described the 50 to 60 explosions he estimates he felt while part of an ordnance disposal unit.

Hayes studied the man in a new way, tracking how water flows through tiny, celery stalklike nerve fibers in his brain u and found otherwise undetectable evidence that those fibers were damaged in a brain region that explained his memory problems and confusion.

ItAEs a noninvasive technique called "diffusion tensor imaging" that merely adds a little time to a standard MRI scan. Water molecules constantly move, bumping into each other and then bouncing away. Measuring the direction and speed of that diffusion in nerve fibers can tell if the fibers are intact or damaged. …