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Military pulls MRI machines for treating troops from war zone

Jan. 23, 2014 - 09:54AM   |  
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Advanced brain imaging machines sent to Afghanistan in 2011 at the urging of Adm. Mike Mullen when he was the Pentagon’s top military officer have since been quietly dismantled.

Mullen hoped the three magnetic resonance imaging machines would help doctors see the mild traumatic brain injuries that have affected thousands of troops exposed to roadside bombs.

But the senior medical officer for the U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in Afghanistan, said it remains unclear whether using MRI machines in the war zone truly helps the process of treating these brain injuries.

Use of them ended last February and they were dismantled for spare parts in October, said Air Force Col. Mark Mavity, Central Command surgeon.

“The device itself doesn’t necessarily help you treat that patient, it just helps you understand the nature of the injury in a little bit more meaningful way,” Mavity said. “[It] was deemed not worth the cost and investment to keep those devices in theater.”

Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who retired in 2011, declined to comment on the machines being dismantled. But he said in 2011that getting the machines into Afghanistan was “a very high priority.”

Mild traumatic brain injury from blasts is described as an “invisible” wound, diagnosed only through symptoms such as loss of consciousness, dizziness and confusion. It has left thousands of troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan with temporary or, in a few cases, permanent problem-solving and concentration problems.

Mullen made it a personal goal to improve the treatment of these wounds. He clashed with military medical officials he thought were moving too slowly to install the MRI machines in the war zone in early 2011.

“I’ve got kids, I’ve got young ones, getting blown up,” Mullen said in April 2011. “Tomorrow’s not soon enough [for MRIs in Afghanistan].”

The machines were in operation by November 2011.

In practice, the machines were viewed by military doctors primarily as tools for conducting a scientific study on their usefulness in the war zone, Mavity said. By November 2012, enough data had been collected from scanning the brains of troops with mild traumatic brain injury to support that study, he said.

So the need for keeping the machines in operation was in question, Mavity said.

Chris Macedonia, a retired Army colonel who advised Mullen on medical issues, said the machines were intended not just for research but also for ongoing treatment. “We were upping our game. ... We were improving our capabilities in theater,” said Macedonia, who said he was unhappy the machines were shut down.

Dave Hovda, director of the UCLA Brain Injury Research Center, who also advised Mullen on the issue, said published studies already have established that the MRI helps doctors who are diagnosing and treating mild brain injury.

But Mavity said other factors were behind turning the machines off: the war winding down, the annual $3 million operating cost and the dwindling number of U.S. casualties.

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