A recent study published in the Journal of Neurotrauma has found military veterans with both post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) have poorer mental health outcomes than veterans diagnosed with just one of the conditions. However, the study also found that mTBI alone could potentially cause mild ongoing cognitive problems.
Previous studies indicate between 12 and 16 percent of all veterans involved in the Iraqi conflict sustained mTBI and approximately 13 to 17 percent developed PTSD. Estimates also suggest up to one-third of all veterans diagnosed with TBI also experience PTSD.
In the past, research has evaluated these conditions in isolation of each other, however a research team at the University of Kentucky hoped to better understand how these conditions function collectively, as well as individually.
“Most previous studies have not adequately separated out the cognitive effects due to mTBI from the cognitive effects due to PTSD,” said Dr. Walter High, an adjunct associate professor in the UK Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Neurosurgery, and Psychology.
“Our study is relatively unique because it includes a comparison group of veterans with PTSD only. This is extremely important because the effects of mTBI and PTSD can be very similar. The inclusion of a group of veterans with both mTBI and PTSD also allowed us to look at the interactive effects of these conditions.”
For the study, the researchers recruited veterans at the Lexington Veterans Affairs Hospital on the UK campus to conduct a series of neuropsychological tests.
Participants were grouped by condition, with groups for mTBI only, PTSD only, and both mTBI and PTSD. The tests were designed to assess cognitive process speed, IQ, verbal processing memory, psychological distress, and other cognitive abilities. The study participants were also sorted by general IQ, age, and other defining characteristics.
The findings showed small drops in information process efficiency, attention, and memory that could specifically be attributed to mild traumatic brain injury, although these reductions are small and not disabling according to High. With proper education and therapies, he believes these deficiencies can be overcome.
“The take-home message is that we need to validate to the veteran that the problems they are experiencing are real, but to reassure them that their cognitive abilities are within normal limits and they can still be successful,” High said. “There are strategies to rehabilitate and exercise their memory.”