Traumatic brain injuries, one of the signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, can be linked to such long-term problems as seizures, aggression and dementia reminiscent of Alzheimer’s disease, according to an Institute of Medicine report released Thursday.
Even mild brain injuries, the report found, appear to be associated with some of these outcomes.
The report is a wake-up call, said Dr. Michael Yochelson, who specializes in traumatic brain injury at National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, and used to work at the National Naval Medical Center.
“We need to be prepared to take care of these people, and we need to be observant,” said Yochelson, who was not involved in the institute’s report.
Traumatic brain injuries occur in a variety of ways, predictable and unexpected – gunshot or shrapnel wounds, strikes to the head or even exposure to an energy source. The brain can be harmed even when a person does not lose consciousness, doctors said.
The report by the nonprofit Institute of Medicine was the latest installment in a series of studies commissioned by the Department of Veterans Affairs on the health of veterans from the Gulf War and current conflicts.
The study was intended to aid VA officials in understanding what other conditions they should look out for in brain-injured patients and in determining disability benefits, said Dr. George W. Rutherford, chairman of the committee that wrote the report.
The authors reviewed 1,900 studies on traumatic brain injuries, looking for problems that persisted more than six months. Most of the research focused on civilians.
The report showed a “big hole” in medical knowledge about blast injuries, which have only recently come to doctors’ attention because they are hallmarks of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Rutherford said.
The group found there was significant evidence connecting moderate or severe brain injuries to problems such as depression, unemployment and Parkinson’s disease-like tremors.
Officials at the VA said they will “carefully review” the report’s recommendations. The department has 60 days to determine whether the long-term problems should be connected to brain-injured veterans’ military service.
Military officials said they were aware of the issues cited in the report and have dedicated $300 million in the last two years for research on traumatic brain injury. They also have recently started a long-term study on blast injuries.