This graphic depicts the brain affected by a concussion. (Army Medical Command)
The Pentagon has established the world’s first and only brain tissue repository dedicated to helping researchers better understand traumatic brain injury in service members and improve care for victims.
Concussions or mild traumatic brain injuries have long been a risk for troops in combat who repeatedly endure exposure to blasts from roadside bombs. Studies estimate that several hundred thousand troops may have suffered blast-related concussions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“There are significant numbers of service members suffering from problems with brain function, whether it’s sleep disorders, difficulty concentrating, behavior problems, memory problems, mood disorder, a significant suicide problem,” said Dr. Daniel Perl, a neuropathologist and director of the brain tissue repository. “It’s unclear how much of that is actually related to damage to the brain and we need to sort this out.”
The Brain Tissue Repository for Traumatic Brain Injury is part of a new $70 million Center for Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine, established at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., with a grant from the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command.
Here’s what service members need to know:
1. Why a brain bank? Although neuro-imaging technology has made great strides and has been helpful, Perl said, researchers need to be able to examine the tissue at a cellular level.
2. Where do the brains come from? Researchers hope that family members choose to donate the brains of their service members so that brain injuries may be better understood. Perl acknowledged it might be difficult to think of the research center at the time when a service member dies, but suggested service members discuss the option with their family members, especially if they have suffered TBI.
“This is a gift that they can make to help the numerous service members who are suffering through this and looking for answers,” he said. “The answers will come from this endeavor.”
3. How will brain tissue be used? World-class scientists are approaching the CNRM with ideas and requests to use tissue samples. Past advances in identifying the nature of Alzheimer’s disease, and the sort of head trauma that appears in football players and other athletes, are attributable to research at other brain repositories, Perl said. “You can really expand the extent and power of the research by doing it this way,” he said.
4. What will researchers study? Of the many unanswered questions about TBI, Perl suggested a few: What does blast exposure do to the brain? Where does it occur in the brain? What is the brain’s attempt to repair that damage? A key goal is understanding subtle changes to the brain, which over time can result in dementia. A small study of four service members’ brains completed this year by Department of Veterans Affairs’ scientists showed evidence of a progressive disorder known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
The same disorder — marked by memory loss, aggression and suicidal thoughts — has been found in deceased NFL players and professional boxers who endured repetitive concussions.
5. What is the CTE connection? Perl acknowledged parallels between the brain injuries of service members and football players, but he said the precise connection remains a mystery for researchers using the brain repository.
“We have to sort this out,” he said, “and by understanding the nature of how this occurs we can come up with logical approaches to prevention and treatment.”
USA Today contributed to this report.