A new study from the Science Translational Medicine journal has discovered the “invisible” brain injuries that leave soldiers and violent sport athletes with long-term emotional and cognitive difficulties. These mild and moderate brain injuries do not show up on CT, MRI, or other imagining scans, often leaving friends, family, and doctors skeptical that any real damage has been done.
However, Reuters points out scientists have now carried out the first experiment of its kind to identify these “invisible injuries,” or those caused by repeated physical impact or explosion blast waves. Researchers discovered “rumpled axons, which carry signals between neurons; gummed-up neurons like those in Alzheimer’s disease; strangled blood vessels,” the news source reports.
According to one of the lead co-authors of the study, Lee Goldstein, these injured brains are such a mess of damaged neurons and other cells that “it looks like autophagy – the brain eating itself alive.” Now that scientists have identified this damage, they hope such injuries will receive the degree of care they deserve.
The article points out that tens of thousands of U.S. troops have sustained these traumatic brain injuries, which is called the signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these injuries have resulted in suicide and other acts of violence from soldiers.
In professional sports, these injuries have become a rising concern, particularly in the NFL, where a number of recent suicides have highlighted the league’s alleged failure to properly protect and treat concussions and other head trauma. Most recently, former linebackerJunior Seau took his own life due to what many believe were the lasting brain injury effects of his playing days.
The study looked at three groups of brains in order to study the damage: four from military veterans who suffered a blast from an improvised explosive device (IED) or a concussion; four from young athletes who sustained concussions; and many more from mice who had been exposed to blasts similar to that from an IED.
The researchers had to look at these brains with microscopes, or even electron microscopes, to discern the damage. However, these enhanced brain views found cells called astrocytes extended to wrap around blood vessels and crumbled axons also wound up. Even long protein strings known as tau were formed in these brains, which are found in Alzheimer’s disease.
The scientists discovered this damage was similar to that seen in former football players who developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). According to Reuters, CTE can lead to “depression, aggression, impulsivity and memory loss and has been linked to suicide.”
The report explains that no approved treatments for traumatic brain injury exist, though they recommend improvements in protective equipment and treatment protocol. Those who undergo head trauma should receive immediate treatment rather than waiting for symptoms to arise, experts believe.
Perhaps most importantly, this study has confirmed “the physical reality of psychological illnesses that the military and others have sometimes dismissed,” Reuters explains. One of these illnesses that have been dismissed as purely psychological is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Now that researchers may have proof that this injury is not just “in the head” of veterans, they may finally begin to look into appropriate treatments that help our soldiers heal.