There is a fascinating article in the February 2015 issue of National Geographic Magazine on the subject of research into soldiers’ exposure to blasts (explosions) and the traumatic brain injury that results from that exposure — “The Invisible War on the Brain” by Caroline Alexander. This has been referred to as the “signature injury” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though blast injury was identified back during World War I.
As stated in the article by Daniel Perl, professor of pathology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, MD, who is conducting brain tissue research, they are seeing brain injury that is “unique to blast. This is an injury that appears to be unique to military experience.” Soldiers have described tremendous physical sensations in response to the blast as shockwaves pass through their body. Later, myriad effects occur such as memory loss, confusion, sleeplessness, impaired speech, impaired vision, difficulty making decisions, and extreme reaction to noise and commotion.
During World War I, the concept of “shell shock” was introduced by British researchers who theorized that the shock wave traveled through the body via spinal fluid to the brain. Over time the concept that blast caused a physical trauma to the brain fell out of favor in the United States and was replaced by the psychological concept of PTSD. Now it appears that researchers are closer to identifying the physical pathways that cause this traumatic brain injury, and the military is taking a closer look. Neurologists are suggesting that the condition be viewed as “blast-induced traumatic brain injury” or “blast-induced neurotrauma” which among other things can make the soldier more vulnerable to certain psychological disorders. However the article points out that “reliable methods of diagnosis remain tragically elusive,” and the most attention has been paid to the soldiers with the outward signs of physical injury. As one soldier is quoted in the article, “If my hand or arm had just been blown off, people would understand. They’d see that something wrong.”
The article is well worth reading for an understanding of the different kinds of research being done, as well as intriguing art therapy that is helping some injured veterans cope with the cognitive losses causes by blast injury.
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