Capturing Some New Images Researcher: Mental Health Issues Often Progress after Brain Injury

By Lind, Treva | The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), April 4, 2019 | Go to article overview

Capturing Some New Images Researcher: Mental Health Issues Often Progress after Brain Injury


Lind, Treva, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA)


If you go

What: "Brain Injury & Psychological Health Following Combat Deployment: The Invisible Wounds of War," a talk by Christine MacDonald, a brain injury researcher with the University of Washington's department of neurological surgery. She's part of a long-term research study on military head injury and its effects on mental health.

When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Ballroom of the John J. Hemmingson Center on the Gonzaga University campus

Cost: Free, but advance registration is required online via Evenbrite.com.

Some people will shake off a mild concussion. They'll take it lightly or even ignore it. But research being done among military patients, with a lead researcher from the University of Washington, is showing that those mild brain injuries can have a lasting effect on mental health.

UW researcher Christine MacDonald has worked since 2008 in a long-term study of brain injuries among military service members. That intense focus, along with advances in imaging technology, has helped researchers connect more dots between brain injury and mental health. It shows that a high number of military patients who experience even mild concussions can suffer psychologically years later, MacDonald said.

Service members often sustain head trauma during combat and in training. MacDonald, an associate professor in UW's department of neurological surgery, is a lead investigator in a team following military patients soon after brain injuries and in follow-up intervals over about 10 years.

"The high-arching, one-sentence theme is evolution, not resolution, of you name it - of symptoms, of disability, of whatever the outcome," MacDonald said. She will give a talk in Spokane at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday on "Brain Injury & Psychological Health Following Combat Deployment: The Invisible Wounds of War."

By following individual military patients so long, researchers can monitor and ask individuals about whether they were worsening, recovering, staying the same and everything in between, she said.

"The study has found that when you follow the same patient over time, those with combat head injuries - and these are the mild concussions, the supposed to be shake-them-off-and-walk-away ones - that a disproportionate number of those individuals have worsening of symptoms that progresses even after one year.

"When we look at the one-year to five-year follow-ups, we actually see a disproportional number of those concussion patients getting worse."

Separately, recent media attention has spotlighted concussions among U.S. athletes, including some who committed suicide and had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), diagnosed postmortem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says traumatic brain injury can be caused from a bump, blow, jolt to the head or penetrating head injury that disrupts normal brain function.

MacDonald said her speech is aimed at educating the public, rehab physicians, providers and students about patient outcomes following brain injuries, and the topic of suicide will come up. The increasing rate of suicide among veterans also has drawn wide attention.

"Unfortunately, some of those exposures do end in suicide, so in all fairness to the challenges faced by this patient population, yes the discussion will come up," MacDonald said.

"I'll touch on some of the work we're doing to understand when these tragedies happen, that we learn as much we can and try to better inform next-generation treatment targets, from the examination of postmortem brain tissue in those who passed from suicide and other exposures."

MacDonald said the study involved military members initially evacuated to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the main U.S. triage point for casualties. Between 2008 and 2013, she lived in Germany on and off as a study lead. She also does follow-up evaluations.

She said it's only been in the past five to 10 years that people have heard more about connections between brain injury and mental health. …

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