The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are notorious for the high rates of brain injury in the veterans who returned home. Estimates suggest as many as one in five soldiers returned from the wars with traumatic brain injury, and a new study shows these injuries may leave lasting scars in the brain.
“More than half of the military service members we studied have one or more lesions on the brain that can be thought of as scars in their brains,” said study lead author Dr. Gerard Riedy, a radiologist specializing in the brain at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
The study evaluated over 800 service members with blast-related concussions, the most common form of brain injury in the military. Of those, more than four out of five reported experiencing one or more blast-related incidents, and nearly two-thirds of the participants said they lost consciousness.
Riedy describes the new study as “just the tip of the iceberg” in terms of research investigating how soldiers are impacted by brain injuries.
In the study, 834 service members who suffered traumatic brain injuries from 2009 to 2014 underwent MRI scans. In addition, 42 adults without head injuries were evaluated as controls. The report shows 82% of the brain injuries were caused by bomb blasts.
After reviewing the scans, the doctors say they found signs of scarring on the brain in 52 percent of injured patients, with small areas of bleeding in 7 percent and signs of pituitary abnormalities in 29 percent.
The pituitary gland is crucial for producing hormones in the body and is located at the base of the brain.
While the findings may sound alarming, they may not be cause for concern.
First, Riedy emphasizes that these types of blast-related injuries are rare in civilians and may differ from the concussions experienced by individuals in car accidents, sports-related collisions, or falls.
“In the military when an IED [improvised explosive device] goes off, that is usually just the start of the action. There are no timeouts, and when a service member wakes up after loss of consciousness they must often have to perform in a chaotic and hostile situation,” Riedy said. “Some researchers believe that this is a contributing factor to the high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder in these patients.”
In addition, at least one expert says the findings of “extremely minor and small” brain scarring aren’t as serious as they sound.
Dr. David Cifu, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Virginia Commonwealth University, was largely dismissive of the findings when asked by HealthDay.
“In the overwhelming majority of individuals, it will mean nothing,” Cifu said. “In a small number, the small areas of structural damage will cause problems, but this is rare.” Also, the pituitary gland findings probably aren’t meaningful, added Cifu, who wasn’t involved in the study.
It will take more research see just how dangerous the scarring on the brain is, but the findings highlight the high risk of blast-related brain injuries in the military.