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Libby and Tom Bates // CBS News

A brain disease best known for impacting football players who suffered concussions is now being found in soldiers

By Sharyn Alfonsi, September 16, 2018, CBS News

Until a few years ago, NFL players who struggled with severe depression, bouts of rage and memory loss in their retirement were often told they were just having a hard time adjusting to life away from the game. Doctors have since learned these changes can be symptoms of the degenerative brain disease CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy, caused by blows to the head.

As we first reported in January, CTE isn’t just affecting athletes, but also showing up in our nation’s heroes. Since 9/11 over 300,000 soldiers have returned home with brain injuries. Researchers fear the impact of CTE could cripple a generation of warriors.

When Joy Kieffer buried her 34-year old son this past summer, it was the end of a long goodbye.

Kieffer’s son, Sgt. Kevin Ash, enlisted in the Army Reserves at the age of 18. Over three deployments, he was exposed to 12 combat blasts, many of them roadside bombs. He returned home in 2012 a different man.

Joy Kieffer: His whole personality had changed. I thought it was exposure to all of the things that he had seen, and he had just become harder. You know, but he was — he was not happy.

Sharyn Alfonsi: So at this point, you’re thinking this decline, this change in my child is just that he’s been in war and he’s seen too much.

Joy Kieffer: Right.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Did he tell you about blasts that he experienced during that time?

Joy Kieffer: Uh-huh.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What did he–tell you?

Joy Kieffer: That they shook him. And he was having blackouts. And — it frightened him.

Ash withdrew from family and friends. He was angry. Depressed. Doctors prescribed therapy and medication, but his health began to decline quickly. By his 34th birthday, Sgt. Kevin Ash was unable to speak, walk or eat on his own.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Looking back on it now, was there anything you feel like he could’ve done?

Joy Kieffer: Uh-uh.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Because?

Joy Kieffer: Because it was– it– it was his brain. The thing I didn’t know was that his brain was continuing to die. I mean, before he went into the service he said, “you know, I could come back with no legs, or no arms, or even blind, or I could be shot, I could die,” but nobody ever said that he could lose his mind one day at a time.

His final wish was to serve his country one last time by donating his brain to science — a gesture he thought would bring better understanding to the invisible wounds of war.

Joy reached out to the VA-Boston University-Concussion Legacy Foundation Brain Bank where neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee is leading the charge in researching head trauma and the degenerative brain disease CTE.

McKee has spent fourteen years looking at the postmortem brains of hundreds of athletes who suffered concussions while playing their sport.

Last summer, her findings shook the football world when she discovered CTE in the brains of 110 out of 111 deceased NFL players — raising serious concerns for those in the game today.

And when Dr. McKee autopsied Patriots tight-end Aaron Hernandez who killed himself after being convicted of murder, she found the most severe case of CTE ever, in someone under 30.

Now she’s seeing similar patterns in deceased veterans who experienced a different kind of head trauma — combat blasts. Of the 125 veterans’ brains Dr. Mckee’s examined, 74 had CTE.

Sharyn Alfonsi: I can understand a football player who keeps, you know, hitting his head, and having impact and concussions. But how is it that a combat veteran, who maybe just experienced a blast, has the same type of injury?

Dr. Ann McKee: This blast injury causes a tremendous sort of– ricochet or– or– a whiplash injury to the brain inside the skull and that’s what gives rise to the same changes that we see in football players, as in military veterans.

Blast trauma was first recognized back in World War I. Known as ‘shell shock,’ poorly protected soldiers often died immediately or went on to suffer physical and psychological symptoms. Today, sophisticated armor allows more soldiers to walk away from an explosion but exposure can still damage the brain — an injury that can worsen over time.

Dr. Ann McKee: It’s not a new injury. But what’s been really stumping us, I think, as– as physicians is it’s not easily detectable, right? It’s– you’ve got a lot of psychiatric symptoms– and you can’t see it very well on images of the brain and so it didn’t occur to us. And I think that’s been the gap, really, that this has been what everyone calls an invisible injury.

Dr. Ann McKee: This is the world’s largest CTE brain bank.

The only foolproof way to diagnose CTE is by testing a post-mortem brain.

Sharyn Alfonsi: So these are full of hundreds of brains…

Dr. Ann McKee: Hundreds of brains, thousands really…

Researchers carefully dissect sections of the brain where they look for changes in the folds of the frontal lobes – an area responsible for memory, judgement, emotions, impulse control and personality.

Dr. Ann McKee: Do you see there’s a tiny little hole there? That is an abnormality. And it’s a clear abnormality.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And what would that affect?

Dr. Ann McKee: Well, it’s part of the memory circuit. You can see that clear hole there that shouldn’t be there. It’s connecting the important memory regions of the brain with other regions. So that is a sign of CTE.

Thin slivers of the affected areas are then stained and viewed microscopically. It’s in these final stages where a diagnosis becomes clear as in the case of Sgt. Kevin Ash.

Sharyn Alfonsi: So this is Sergeant Ash’s brain?

Dr. Ann McKee: Right. This is– four sections of his brain. And what you can see is– these lesions. The, and those lesions are CTE And they’re in very characteristic parts of the brain. They’re at the bottom of the crevice. That’s a unique feature of CTE.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And in a healthy brain, you wouldn’t see any of those kind of brown spots?

Dr. Ann McKee: No, no, it would be completely clear. And then when you look microscopically, you can see that the tau, which is staining brown and is inside nerve cells is surrounding these little vessels.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And explain, what is the tau?

Dr. Ann McKee: So tau is a protein that’s normally in the nerve cell. It helps with structure and after trauma, it starts clumping up as a toxin inside the nerve cell. And over time, and even years, gradually that nerve cell dies.

Dr. Lee Goldstein has been building on Dr. McKee’s work with testing on mice.

Inside his Boston University lab, Dr. Goldstein built a 27-foot blast tube where a mouse – and in this demonstration, a model – is exposed to an explosion equivalent to the IEDs used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dr. Lee Goldstein: When it reaches about 25 this thing is going to go.

Dr. Goldstein’s model shows what’s going on inside the brain during a blast. The brightly colored waves illustrate stress on the soft tissues of the brain as it ricochets back and forth within the skull.

Dr. Lee Goldstein: What we see after these blast exposures, the animals actually look fine. Which is shocking to us. So they come out of what is a near lethal blast exposure, just like our military service men and women do. And they appear to be fine. But what we know is that that brain is not the same after that exposure as it was microseconds before. And if there is a subsequent exposure, that change will be accelerated. And ultimately, this triggers a neurodegenerative disease. And, in fact, we can see that really after even one of these exposures.

Sharyn Alfonsi: The Department of Defense estimates hundreds of thousands of soldiers have experienced a blast like this. What does that tell you?

Dr. Lee Goldstein: This is a disease and a problem that we’re going to be dealing with for decades. And it’s a huge public health problem. It’s a huge problem for the Veterans Administration. It’s a huge moral responsibility for all of us.

A responsibility owed to soldiers like 34-year-old Sgt. Tom Bates.

Sgt. Tom Bates: We were struck with a large IED. It was a total devastation strike.

Bates miraculously walked away from a mangled humvee — one of four IED blasts he survived during deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Do you remember feeling the impact in your body?

Sgt. Tom Bates: Yes. Yeah.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What does that feel like?

Sgt. Tom Bates: Just basically like getting hit by a train.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And you were put back on the frontlines.

Sgt. Tom Bates: Yes.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And that was it?

Sgt. Tom Bates: Uh-huh

When Bates returned home in 2009, his wife Libby immediately saw a dramatic change.

Libby Bates: I thought, “Something is not absolutely right here. Something’s going on. For him to just lay there and to sob and be so sad. You know, what do you do for that? How do I– how do I help him? He would look at me and say, “If it wasn’t for you, I would end it all right now.” You know, I mean, like, what do you– what do you do– and what do you say to somebody who says that? You know I love this man so much. And —

Sharyn Alfonsi: You’re going to the VA, you’re getting help, but did you feel like you weren’t getting answers?

Sgt. Tom Bates: Yes.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And so you took it into your own hands and started researching?

Sgt. Tom Bates: I knew the way everything had gone and how quick a lot of my neurological issues had progressed that something was wrong. And I just– I wanted answers for it.

That led him to New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital where neurologist Dr. Sam Gandy is trying to move beyond diagnosing CTE only in the dead by using scans that test for the disease in the living.

Dr. Sam Gandy: By having this during life, this now gives us for the first time the possibility of estimating the true prevalence of the disease. It’s important to estimate prevalence so that people can have some sense of what the risk is.

In the past year, 50 veterans and athletes have been tested for the disease here. Tom Bates asked to be a part of it.

That radioactive tracer – known as t807 – clings to those dead clusters of protein known as tau, which are typical markers of the disease.

Through the course of a 20 minute PET scan, high resolution images are taken of the brain and then combined with MRI results to get a 360 degree picture of whether there are potential signs of CTE.

Scan results confirmed what Tom and Libby had long suspected.

On the right, we see a normal brain scan with no signs of CTE next to Tom’s brain where tau deposits, possible markers of CTE, are bright orange.

Dr. Sam Gandy: Here these could be responsible for some of the anxiety and depression he’s suffered and we’re concerned it will progress.

Sgt. Tom Bates: My hope is that this study becomes more prominent, and gets to more veterans, and stuff like that so we can actually get, like, a reflection of what population might actually have this.

There is no cure for CTE.

Dr. Gandy hopes his trial will lead to drug therapies so he can offer some relief to patients like Tom.

Dr. Ann McKee believes some people may be at higher risk of getting the disease than others.

While examining NFL star Aaron Hernandez’s brain she identified a genetic bio-marker she believes may have predisposed him to CTE.

A discovery that could have far-reaching implications on the football field and battlefield.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Do you think you will ever be your old self again?

Sgt. Tom Bates: I don’t ever see me being my old self again. I think it’s just too far gone.

Sharyn Alfonsi: So what’s your hope then?

Sgt. Tom Bates: Just to not become worse than I am now.

Since our story first aired, over 100 veterans have contacted Dr. Gandy to enroll in ongoing trials to identify whether they are living with CTE. And more than 300 have reached out to Dr. Mckee about donating their brains to research.

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The Intrepid Spirit traumatic brain injury treatment center is slated to open April 2 at Camp Pendleton. (Courtesy Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton) (Photo/iStock)

Brain injury center to open at Marine base

By Linda McIntosh, March 27, 2018, sandiegouniontribune.com

A brain injury treatment center for military personnel will open its doors April 2 near the Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton.

The $11.5 million Intrepid Spirit center is the seventh of nine such facilities at military bases across the country. It is funded by the New York-based nonprofit Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund founded in 2000 by Zachary Fisher, who also started the Fisher House Foundation for military families.

The center will operate as a part of Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton to treat active-duty military patients who suffer from the physical and psychological effects of brain injury. The center will also provide education and other resources on brain injury for veterans and the wider community.

The center will expand the hospital’s existing program at the Concussion Care Clinic, which has served more than 2,000 patients since 2014. An estimated 550-600 new patients are expected to be referred to the center each year.

“The facility will offer interdisciplinary, state-of-the-art evaluation of service members using clinical, laboratory and imaging resources to guide treatment,” said Cmdr. Paul Sargent, medical director of the Intrepid Spirit center, Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton.

The center’s specialty rehabilitation and therapy programs will focus on providing service members strategies to improve recovery from physical, emotional and spiritual injuries.

“We know that being able to be close to home, surrounded by loved ones, is a crucial part of the recovery process, so we are opening centers on the West Coast this spring at Camp Pendleton and also at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington in order that service members who need treatment do not have to uproot themselves and their families to get it,” said David Winters, president of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund.

Two teams of clinicians will serve the clinic. Their specialties range from neurology, physical medicine and rehabilitation, psychiatry, trauma psychology, neuropsychology and pain psychology to physical and occupational therapy, creative arts therapy and neuro-optometry.

“Our approach is a broadly collaborative center for preventing, treating and researching head trauma and injury to the brain,” Sargent said.

The Intrepid Spirit center includes research, education and clinical staff from the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, which is part of the Department of Defense’s Health Agency.

“Teaching Marines, sailors and their commands about the risks of head injury, how to mitigate concussions and how to understand Traumatic Brain Injury signs and symptoms, along with how to improve readiness is a major goal of our TBI training,” said Regional Education Coordinator Clint Pearman, a certified brain injury specialist with the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center.

Pearman provides outreach, education, training and resources for medical personnel, military commands, service members, veterans and family members and civilian community groups from the Camp Pendleton area up to northern California.

The center’s design is based on the original National Intrepid Center of Excellence, which opened in 2010 at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., operated by the Department of Defense.

“There are hundreds of thousands of U.S. service members who continue to suffer from traumatic brian injury and other psychological health conditions,” Winters said. “The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund has tried to help these brave men and women get the best care available, so we made it our mission to build nine Intrepid Spirit centers that provide comprehensive, state-of-the-art treatment.”

The clinic’s ground breaking was last May and a grand opening ceremony will be held at 11 a.m. April 4 at the Intrepid Spirit Center.

For information about base access, visit pendleton.marines.mil/About/Base-Information/Base-Access.

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The Cohen family partners with USC to serve families in Los Angeles.
 
by Lynn Lipinski, tfm.USC.edu (Autumn 2016) — PEACE AFTER WAR can be elusive for combat veterans who fight painful memories long after they’ve left the battlefield. Of the more than 2.6 million men and women who have served in the U.S. military since 9/11, about 20 percent experience some form of post-traumatic stress or brain injury—but nearly half forego treatment, according to the Cohen Veterans Network.

The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at USC, made possible by a $15.7 million gift from Steven Cohen and the Cohen Veterans Network, offers veterans and their family members free outpatient mental health services and case management. Recently opened in downtown Los Angeles, the Cohen Military Family Clinic at USC is part of a national network of clinics serving veterans and is a collaboration between the USC School of Social Work and the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Providers will also be stationed at locations throughout the county in areas that otherwise lack these types of services. The clinic will also serve veterans who are ineligible for Veterans’ Admnistration benefits, such as those who served in the National Guard or the Reserves.

“The wounds of war are serious. It is not easy to serve your country in combat overseas and then come back into society seamlessly, especially if you are suffering,” says Cohen, chairman and CEO of Point72 Asset Management. “Veterans have paid an incredible price. It’s important that this country pays back that debt.”

The Cohen Veterans Network plans to create a system of about two dozen centers across the country by 2020 as part of a $275 million initiative to improve access to behavioral health care for recent veterans. Cohen’s support of services for veterans began in part because of a personal connection: His son, Robert, deployed to Afghanistan with the Marines and is currently in the Reserves.

USC’s strong programs for veterans made it a natural fit to host the clinic. The USC School of Social Work is home to the Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families, where researchers conducted the first comprehensive study of veterans in L.A. County. Their findings are already helping to create effective services for veterans. The school has also earned national recognition for its pioneering master’s degree in military social work—the only program of its kind offered by a civilian research university.

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By John Prybys, LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL (August 22, 2016) — Randy Dexter and Captain are more than just dog owner and dog. That’s obvious from the way Captain looks for Dexter whenever the Army veteran leaves the room, and the way the Lab mix’s demeanor slips instantly from playful to dead serious once he’s wearing the jacket that denotes his status as a service animal.

Dexter is a retired U.S. Army staff sergeant who did two tours of duty in Iraq. He was diagnosed with both post-traumatic stress disorder and a mild traumatic brain injury, and the story of Dexter and Captain is featured in a new awareness campaign urging veterans and military service people to seek help for traumatic brain injury if they need it.

The campaign, “A Head for the Future,” is sponsored by the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. In his video, Dexter shares the struggles he has experienced coping with his injuries and the reluctance he felt at first to seek help for it.

But, he says, “I was lucky, because when I was in the Army and had my head injury, I was kind of forced to get help.”

Dexter, 34, is a graduate of Green Valley High School who served in the Army for 11 years and had two tours of duty in Iraq. In 2005, Dexter, a combat medic, and his squad were hit by an IED, prompting a long, and continuing, struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Then, after returning home and while still being treated for PTSD and training soldiers bound for Iraq and Afghanistan, Dexter suffered a brain injury during a recreational football game. He’s not sure, even now, what happened. All he knows is that he lost the memory of about 24 hours’ time and, even, of going to the game at all.

X-rays and imaging studies revealed no skull fractures or apparent injuries. But, afterward, Dexter experienced a worsening of already existing problems with his memory, concentration and equilibrium, and began to suffer migraines and severe, debilitating headaches that eventually compounded his PTSD and caused severe depression.

Dr. Scott Livingston, director of education for the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center in Silver Springs, Maryland, says symptoms of PTSD and brain injury often can overlap, making diagnosis a challenge. And when a brain injury does occur, he says, it often presents with no obvious symptoms that can be detected by X-ray or imaging scans.

In such cases, the problem likely is “more of a microscopic type of injury within the brain,” Livingston says.

Most civilians probably assume that brain injuries among service people are caused mostly by blasts and blunt-force trauma to the head. Yet, Livingston says, most are caused by motor vehicle collisions, training-related accidents, falls and sports and recreational activities.

Whatever the cause, military personnel are reluctant to report an injury or seek care for it. The current campaign is designed to raise awareness of brain injuries among service people, promote ways to prevent it when possible, and encourage men and women to report it and get it checked out, Livingston says.

“It’s well-known in scientific literature that the earlier someone reports a mild traumatic brain injury and goes to seek help, the better the chances are for better and more complete recovery,” he says.

During his treatment, Dexter participated in a program that paired injured veterans with service dogs. His experience with a dog named Ricochet was so good that he later welcomed the chance to be paired with Captain.

Dexter and Captain are a great team. Dexter says the dog can detect impending anxiety attacks even before he does, and that the dog can serve as a physical shield and protector in such public places as big-box retail stores, which can be particularly unnerving places for those with PTSD.

The true test of Captain’s effectiveness is that the dog has allowed Dexter to significantly reduce the medications he has to take. Today, it would be difficult for someone who doesn’t know the back story to detect Dexter’s struggles with traumatic brain injury, and it was his own previous interest in speaking out publicly about his conditions that led to his participation in the new awareness campaign.

Dexter now attends UNLV, where he’s majoring in communication studies and Spanish. He has been active on the debate teams, will be a peer adviser for other veterans, and hopes to kick off a music show on the university’s HD/internet radio station.

Dexter hopes his video and his story will help to persuade other veterans and active service people to seek out help for PTSD and brain injury. That can be difficult, he notes, because the standard soldier’s stance is that, whatever is happening, “you just deal with it, and that’s true across the whole military culture.”

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1st Lt. Timothy Dwyer performs a cognitive test, as occupational therapist Jenny Owens takes notes at the Fort Campbell Army base in Fort Campbell, Ky. Soldiers from the Army’s 52nd Ordnance Group based at Fort Campbell have undergone hours of exhaustive cognitive testing in the military’s first-of-its-kind study of mild traumatic brain injury.

Military is doing first-of-its-kind study on mild traumatic brain injury

by Kristin M. Hall, Associated Press

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — Motivated by the deaths of two friends in war-zone explosions, 1st Lt. Timothy Dwyer decided to become a bomb hunter.

By joining an explosive ordnance disposal unit, Dwyer put himself at a high risk not just of being killed, but of falling victim to another, more insidious threat: repeated concussions from blasts that don’t kill.

Soldiers from the Army’s 52nd Ordnance Group based at Fort Campbell have undergone hours of exhaustive cognitive testing in the military’s first-of-its-kind study of mild traumatic brain injury. This focus on the soldiers who find and destroy the powerful and deadly weapons is part of a larger effort by the military this year to better track and treat mild brain injuries.

The Fort Campbell bomb specialists will be tracked during their upcoming Afghanistan deployment for concussions and head injuries to look for effects on brain functions.

“No one wants to get hurt, but being a soldier, being (in explosive ordnance disposal), it’s just one of those things you’ve come to expect that might happen to you,” said Dwyer, a 23-year-old platoon leader with three kids who is leaving this year for his first deployment.

The nature of the ordnance group’s work makes its members the ideal patients for the study of mild brain injuries, said Dr. Bret Logan, deputy commander for managed care and compliance at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital at Fort Campbell.

“We tried to identify those populations that we could have almost an assured likelihood that they would have a concussive episode,” Logan said.

Active in high school sports, Dwyer said he’d had at least three diagnosed concussions before joining the Army. In addition to those, Dwyer admitted, “I’ve had a lot of concussions that I have never gone to the doctor for.”

During the testing, the soldiers are subjected to numerous mental exercises and given puzzles and quizzes that give a baseline of a soldier’s brain functions before an injury. One test required Dwyer to quickly press a series of blinking lights while doing math problems in his head. In another, he was asked to recall a list of words that he was given earlier.

Dr. Tamara Moreland, a physical therapist at the Traumatic Brain Injury Center at Fort Campbell, instructed Dwyer to stand on a platform that shifted and rocked under him. The test measured how well his inner ear works to keep his balance, an area of common injury after explosions.

In a small office at the post’s center, another EOD officer, 1st Lt. Jay Park, was fitted with what looked like a swim cap with electrodes jutting out and clips on his ears. Cotton balls taped over his eyes reduced eye movement during the testing, and wires from the cap plugged into a computer that measured activity in different parts of his brain.

178,000 soldiers diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries since 2000
The Department of Defense says 178,000 troops have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries since 2000, mostly mild Fortcases. Even those can have wide-ranging effects on concentration, speech, balance and eyesight.

The Army released new rules this year for soldiers who are within 50 meters of a blast, are in a vehicle that rolls over or are in a vehicle involved in a blast. Those soldiers now must undergo a medical evaluation and be put on 24 hours of rest before returning to duty. Comprehensive evaluations will be mandatory after three concussions in one year.

Studies have shown that a person can fully recover after a concussion, but another concussion without time to rest can impair healing.

“The brain is using a lot of energy to heal, and if you stress the brain so that it runs out of energy, it’s actually going to cause death of neurons,” said Dr. David Twillie, director of Fort Campbell’s Traumatic Brain Injury Center.

Twillie said he understands that some soldiers will not want to take a break from the fighting after a concussion, but he said the rest will keep more soldiers ready for battle.

“You can actually conserve the fighting strength by having a soldier take a knee versus breaking the soldier to the point where they won’t be able to return,” he said.

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