Improvised Explosives Put Soldiers At Risk for Memory Loss, Brain Disease

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Our armed service men and women and their families understand that they risk a lot in order to protect our nation. However, I bet that one thing they didn’t take into account is that, if they are exposed to a traumatic brain injury thanks to an improvised explosive, they could be faced with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and potential dementia. This is the same degenerative brain disease that some retired football players who have experienced numerous concussions are battling.

    The Washington Post reported on a very small study that found four young military veterans’ brains, upon autopsy, displayed the earliest signs of CTE. These veterans were between the ages of 22 and 45 and lived for at least one year after suffering a traumatic brain injury (TBI) during their service. These four veterans complained of several issues, including memory, irritability and difficulty sleeping, prior to their deaths.

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    In doing the autopsy, scientists found that these brains’ had broken axons, which are nerve fibers that allow the brain to communicate, as well as abnormal tangles of tau, a brain protein that is often seen with early CTE. The scientists also compared the veterans’ brain tissue with the brains of very young athletes who had displayed signs of early CTE, and found that these tissues were nearly identical. Nancy Walsh, a staff writer for MedPage Today, reported that the injuries found in the veterans were “indistinguishable” from the brain injuries found in athletes such as Dave Duerson, the former Chicago Bears safety who shot himself in the chest after experiencing years of mental deterioration. Prior to committing suicide, he sent a text message to his family expressing his wish that his brain be used for research at the Boston University School of Medicine. Duerson, who experienced multiple head injuries during his football career, was found to have had CTE.

    The scary part is that an estimated 285,000 military veterans who took part in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been diagnosed as having a TBI. Traumatic brain injury is considered a signature injury of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Washington Post reported that these closed-head injuries are a result of being in close proximity to an explosion (such as a car bomb or a suicide bomber). Traditional medical exams are unable to identify the damage so physicians have difficulty making a diagnosis.

    In an experiment with mice, researchers found that a single blast was enough to damage to the brain. Their experiment simulated the conditions of a blast from an improvised explosive device, similar to those that have been detonated during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Walsh noted that the researchers found the strength of this type of blast wave was a Mach number of 1.26 and that wind velocities exceeding 330 miles per hour followed the blast. This wind velocity is higher than any naturally occurring gust of wind. The blast wind caused the head to accelerate and decelerate at a high level, leading to neuropathologic changes that matched what has been found in humans. The researchers also found that the mice experienced difficulty with learning and memory tasks two weeks after the blast exposure.

  • Advanced CTE can lead to a type of dementia known as dementia pugilistica. The Mayo Clinic reported that this type of dementia (often known as boxer’s dementia) is caused by repetitive head trauma. “Depending on the part of the brain injured, it can cause dementia signs and symptoms such as memory problems, poor coordination and impaired speech, as well as tremors, slow movement and muscle stiffness (parkinsonism),” the Mayo Clinic’s website stated. “Symptoms may not appear until many years after the actual trauma. A single traumatic head injury can cause post-traumatic dementia, which is much like dementia pugilistica, but may include long-term memory problems.”

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    Primary Sources for this Sharepost:

    Mayo Clinic. (2011). Dementia: Causes.

    The Washington Post. (2012). Small study links veterans’ blast injuries with risk of later brain disease found in athletes.

    Walsh, Nancy. (2012). Blast injured soldiers’ brains mimic athletes’.

Published On: May 18, 2012