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Ayn al Asad Air Base in western Iraq after an Iranian missile attack on Jan. 8. The number of service members experiencing symptoms associated with brain injuries has since topped 100. Photo Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

 

Brain Injuries Are Common in Battle.
The Military Has No Reliable Test for Them.

Traumatic brain injury is a signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the military still has no objective way of diagnosing it in the field.

By Dave Philipps and Thomas Gibbons-Neff for nytimes.com, February 15, 2020

 
U.S. troops at Ayn al Asad Air Base in western Iraq hunkered down in concrete bunkers last month as Iranian missile strikes rocked the runway, destroying guard towers, hangars and buildings used to fly drones.
When the dust settled, President Trump and military officials declared that no one had been killed or wounded during the attack. That would soon change.

A week after the blast, Defense Department officials acknowledged that 11 service members had tested positive for traumatic brain injury, or TBI, and had been evacuated to Kuwait and Germany for more screening. Two weeks after the blast, the Pentagon announced that 34 service members were experiencing symptoms associated with brain injuries, and that an additional seven had been evacuated. By the end of January the number of potential brain injuries had climbed to 50. This week it grew to 109.

The Defense Department says the numbers are driven by an abundance of caution. It noted that 70 percent of those who tested positive for a TBI had since returned to duty. But experts in the brain injury field said the delayed response and confusion were primarily caused by a problem both the military and civilian world have struggled with for more than a decade: There is no reliable way to determine who has a brain injury and who does not.

Top military leaders have for years called traumatic brain injury one of the signature wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; at the height of the Iraq war in 2008, they started pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into research on detection and treatment. But the military still has no objective tool for diagnosing brain injury in the field. Instead, medical personnel continue to use a paper questionnaire that relies on answers from patients — patients who may have reasons to hide or exaggerate symptoms, or who may be too shaken to answer questions accurately.

The military has long struggled with how to address so-called invisible war wounds, including traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite big investments in research that have yielded advances in the laboratory, troops on the ground are still being assessed with the same blunt tools that have been in use for generations.

The problem is not unique to the military. Civilian doctors struggle to accurately assess brain injuries, and still rely on a process that grades the severity of a head injury in part by asking patients a series of questions: Did they black out? Do they have memory problems or dizziness? Are they experiencing irritability or difficulty concentrating?

“It’s bad, bad, bad. You would never diagnose a heart attack or even a broken bone that way,” said Dr. Jeff Bazarian a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “And yet we are doing it for an injury to the most complex organ in the body. Here’s how crazy it gets: You are relying on people to report what happened. But the part of the brain most often affected by a traumatic brain injury is memory. We get a lot of false positives and false negatives.”

Without a good diagnosis, he said, doctors often don’t know whether a patient has a minor concussion that might require a day’s rest, or a life-threatening brain bleed, let alone potential long-term effects like depression and personality disorder.

At Ayn al Asad, personnel used the same paper questionnaires that field medics used in remote infantry platoons in 2010. Aaron Hepps, who was a Navy corpsman in a Marines infantry company in Afghanistan at that time, said it did not work well then for lesser cases, and the injuries of many Marines may have been missed. During and after his deployment, he counted brain injuries in roughly 350 Marines — about a third of the battalion.

After the January missile attack, Maj. Robert Hales, one of the top medical providers at the air base, said that the initial tests were “a good start,” but that it took numerous screenings and awareness among the troops to realize that repeated exposure to blast waves during the hourlong missile strikes had affected dozens.

Traumatic brain injuries are among the most common injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in part because armor to protect from bullet and shrapnel wounds has gotten better, but they offer little protection from the shock waves of explosions. More than 350,000 brain injuries have been reported in the military since 2001.

The concrete bunkers scattered around bases like Ain al Assad protect from flying shrapnel and debris, but the small quarters can amplify shock waves and lead to head trauma.

The blasts on Jan. 8, one military official said, were hundreds of times more powerful than the rocket and mortar attacks regularly aimed at U.S. bases, causing at least one concrete wall to collapse atop a bunker with people inside.

Capt. Geoff Hansen was in a Humvee at Ayn al Asad when the first missile hit, blowing open a door. Then a second missile hit.

“That kind of blew me back in,” he said. “Blew debris in my face so I went and sat back down a little confused.”

A tangle of factors make diagnosing head injuries in the military particularly tricky, experts say. Some troops try to hide symptoms so they can stay on duty, or avoid being perceived as weak. Others may play up or even invent symptoms that can make them eligible for the Purple Heart medal or valuable veteran’s education and medical benefits.

And sometimes commanders suspect troops with legitimate injuries of malingering and force them to return to duty. Pentagon officials said privately this week that some of the injuries from the Jan. 8 incident had probably been exaggerated. Mr. Trump seemed to dismiss the injuries at a news conference in Davos, Switzerland, last month. “I heard they had headaches,” he said. “I don’t consider them very serious injuries relative to other injuries I have seen.”

In the early years of the war in Iraq, troops with concussions were often given little medical treatment and were not eligible for the Purple Heart. It was only after clearly wounded troops began complaining of poor treatment that Congress got involved and military leaders began pressing for better diagnostic technology.

Damir Janigro, who directed cerebrovascular research at the Cleveland Clinic for more than a decade, said relying on the questionnaire makes accurate diagnosing extremely difficult.

“You have the problem of the cheaters, and the problem of the ones who don’t want to be counted,” he said. “But you have a third problem, which is that even if people are being completely honest, you still don’t know who is really injured.”

In civilian emergency rooms, the uncertainty leads doctors to approve unnecessary CT scans, which can detect bleeding and other damage to the brain, but are expensive and expose patients to radiation. At the same time doctors miss other patients who may need care. In a war zone, bad calls can endanger lives, as troops are either needlessly airlifted or kept in the field when they cannot think straight.

Mr. Janigro is at work on a possible solution. He and his team have developed a test that uses proteins found in a patient’s saliva to diagnose brain injuries. Other groups are developing a blood test.

Both tests work on a similar principle. When the brain is hit by a blast wave or a blow to the head, brain cells are stretched and damaged. Those cells then dispose of the damaged parts, which are composed of distinctive proteins. Abnormal levels of those proteins are dumped into the bloodstream, where for several hours they can be detected in both the blood and saliva. Both tests, and another test being developed that measures electrical activity in the brain, were funded in part by federal grants, and have shown strong results in clinical trials. Researchers say they could be approved for use by the F.D.A. in the next few years.

The saliva test being developed by Mr. Janigro will look a bit like an over-the-counter pregnancy test. Patients with suspected brain injuries would put sensors in their mouths, and within minutes get a message that says that their brain protein levels are normal, or that they should see a doctor.

But the new generation of testing tools may fall short, said Dr. Gerald Grant, a professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University and a former Air Force lieutenant colonel who frequently treated head injuries while deployed to Iraq in 2005.

Even sophisticated devices had trouble picking up injuries from roadside bombs, he said.

“You’d get kids coming in with blast injuries,” he said, “and they clearly had symptoms, but the CT scans would be negative.”

He was part of an earlier effort to find a definitive blood test, which he said in an interview was “the holy grail.” But progress was slow. The grail was never found, he said, and the tests currently being developed are helpful for triaging cases, but too vague to be revolutionary.

“Battlefield injuries are complex,” he said. “We still haven’t found the magic biomarker.”

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New Rules to Protect Your Kid’s Noggin

May 25, 2019, Parents Magazine

 
Children bonk their head all the time when they’re wrestling with siblings, playing soccer, and just being clumsy-and it’s easy to worry that a bump could turn into something bigger. After all, more than 800,000 kids in the U.S. get a concussion every year. For the first time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released specific “return to learn” and “return to play” guidelines for head injuries, based on 25 years of research. One doctor shares the big takeaways.

ALWAYS take any injury beyond a light head bump seiously. A concussion occurs when a bump, blow, or jolt to the head or a hit to the body makes the brain bounce or twist in the skull. This creates chemical changes and can sometimes damage brain cells. “If your child complains of a headache or dizziness, is nauseous or vomiting, appears dazed, or sleeps more or less than usual, it’s time to get a doctor’s evaluation,” says Dennis Cardone, D.O., associate professor of orthopedic surgery and pediatrics and co-director of the NYU Langone Concussion Center. Even toddlers can get a concussion from a tumble, so look for changes in their behavior such as not wanting to nurse or eat or losing interest in toys.

If diagnosed with a concussion, your child will need menlal rest, says Dr. Cardone. That means taking a break from all activities for two to three days, and after that, starting with light aerobic activity. He may need to attend school for only half the day or do little to no homework (he won’t mind this rule!). However, he shouldn’t return to any sports or strenuous activities that have a high risk of falling or contact (think: field hockey, gymnastics, climbing a tree) until he’s been cleared by his doctor, which should be within a few weeks.

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By Alyssa Navarro, Tech Times (August 23, 2016) — Federal health regulators in the United States approved on Monday the use of two new computer softwares as cognitive screening tests for traumatic head injury patients.

Known as ImPACT or the Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing (ImPACT), the new testing device, as well as a similar test designed for children, can be used by doctors to evaluate signs and symptoms of head injuries that could indicate concussion.

ImPACT is designed for patients aged 12 to 59 years old, while ImPACT Pediatric is intended for children aged 5 to 11 years old, officials said. Licensed health care professionals are the only ones allowed to perform the analysis and interpret the results.

The software can be accessed easily because it runs on both desktop computers and laptops, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Both tests the first ever devices permitted by the FDA to assess cognitive function after experiencing a possible concussion. They are designed to be part of medical evaluations in hospitals.

Although ImPACT and ImPACT Pediatric will definitely be useful for doctors, both tests are not meant to diagnose concussions or determine treatments that are appropriate for such cases, the FDA said.

Instead, both devices are only designed to test cognitive skills such as reaction time, memory and word recognition. All of these can be impacted by head injuries. Afterwards, the results are compared to a patient’s pre-injury baseline scores or an age-matched control database, the FDA said.

Dr. Carlos Peña, director of the neurological and physical medicine division at the Center for Devices and Radiological Health, acknowledges that the two testing devices can provide useful information that can aid doctors in the evaluation of people who are experiencing potential signs of concussion.

However, Peña says that clinicians should not completely depend on the tests alone to rule out concussion or to decide whether a player with a head injury should return to a game.

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveal that traumatic brain injuries are responsible for more than 2 million visits to the emergency room in the country annually. Traumatic brain injuries also account for more than 50,000 deaths in America every year.

Cases of head injury among kids have been increasing. In May, a CDC report showed that from January 2001 to December 2013, approximately 214,883 children aged 14 years old and below were brought to emergency departments due to head injuries.

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When a person has a stroke, blood flow to the brain is interrupted, causing brain cells to die within minutes due to lack of oxygen. In some cases, this can result in paralysis, speech and language problems, vision problems, and memory loss. But in a new study, researchers have shown that stem cell therapy increases nerve cell production in mice with brain damage due to stroke.

by Marie Ellis, MedicalNewsToday.com (August 22, 2016) — The researchers – led by Berislav Zlokovic, M.D., Ph.D., from the University of Southern California (USC) – publish their findings in the journal Nature Medicine.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States and is also a major cause of disability in adults.

The effects of a stroke depend on the location of the blockage and how much brain tissue is involved, but a stroke on one side of the brain will result in neurological effects on the opposite side of the body.

For example, a stroke on the right side of the brain could produce paralysis on the left side of the body, and vice versa.

A stroke in the brain stem can affect both sides of the body and could leave the patient in a so-called locked-in state, where the patient is unable to speak or move the body below the neck.

Given that about 800,000 people in the U.S. have a stroke each year, the researchers of this latest study wanted to investigate potential therapies.

Therapy is a combination of two methods

The researchers say their therapy is a combination of two methods. One involves surgically grafting human neural stem cells onto the damaged area, where they are able to mature into neurons and other brain cells.

The other therapy uses a compound called 3K3A-APC, which has been shown to help neural stem cells that have been grown in a petri dish grow into neurons. But the researchers say it was not clear what effect the molecule – called activated protein-C (APC) – would have on live animals.

As such, the team used mice for their experiment, and they found that a month after inducing stroke-like brain damage in the mice, those that had received both the stem cells and 3K3A-APC performed much better on motor and sensory function tests, compared with mice that received only one of the treatments or neither.

The researchers also observed that the mice given 3K3A-APC had more stem cells survive and mature into neurons.

But how did the researchers induce stroke-like brain damage in the mice? They disrupted blood flow to a specific brain area.

Then, 1 week later, which is the mouse equivalent of several months in humans, the researchers inserted the stem cells next to the dead tissue and administered either a placebo or 3K3A-APC.

“When you give these mice 3K3A-APC, it works much better than stem cells alone,” says Dr. Zlokovic. “We showed that 3K3A-APC helps the cells convert into neurons and make structural and functional connections with the host’s nervous system.”

‘No one in the stroke field has ever shown this’

The researchers also looked at the connections between the neurons that grew from the stem cells in the damaged brain region and nerve cells in the primary motor cortex.

The team found that the mice given the stem cells and 3K3A-APC had more neuronal connections – synapses – that linked those areas, compared with the mice given the placebo.

Then, when the researchers stimulated the mice’s paws with a vibration, the neurons that grew from the stem cells exhibited a stronger response in the mice that were treated.

“That means the transplanted cells are being functionally integrated into the host’s brain after treatment with 3K3A-APC. No one in the stroke field has ever shown this, so I believe this is going to be the gold standard for future studies.” ~Dr. Berislav Zlokovic

Following on from this study, the researchers want to pursue another phase II clinical trial to examine whether the treatment combination can encourage the growth of new neurons in human stroke patients to improve function.

They say that if that trial is successful, it could be possible to test the therapy’s effects on other conditions, including spinal cord injuries.

“This USC-led animal study could pave the way for a potential breakthrough in how we treat people who have experienced a stroke,” says Jim Koenig, Ph.D., program director at the National Institute of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), who funded the study.

“If the therapy works in humans,” he adds, “it could markedly accelerate the recovery of these patients.”

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UCSF Researchers Advocate Prioritizing Teens for Education and Prevention

by Scott Maier (August 17, 2016) — The number of Americans diagnosed with concussions is growing, most significantly in adolescents, according to researchers at UC San Francisco. They recommend that adolescents be prioritized for ongoing work in concussion education, diagnosis, treatment and prevention.

The findings appear online August 16, 2016, in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine.

“Our study evaluated a large cross-section of the U.S. population,” said lead author Alan Zhang, MD, UCSF Health orthopaedic surgeon. “We were surprised to see that the increase in concussion cases over the past few years mainly were from adolescent patients aged 10 to 19.”

Concussions are a form of mild traumatic brain injury resulting in transient functional and biochemical changes in the brain. They can lead to time lost from sports, work and school, as well as significant medical costs.

Though symptoms resolve in most concussion patients within weeks, some patients’ symptoms last for months, including depression, headache, dizziness and fogginess. Neuroimaging and neuropathological studies also suggest there may be chronic structural abnormalities in the brain following multiple concussions.

Recent studies have shown an increase in traumatic brain injuries diagnosed in many U.S. emergency departments. Smaller cohort studies of pediatric and high school athletes also have indicated a rise in concussions for certain sports, such as football and girls’ soccer. However, this is the first study to assess trends in concussion diagnoses across the general U.S. population in various age groups.

In this study, Zhang and his colleagues evaluated the health records of 8,828,248 members of Humana Inc., a large private payer insurance group. Patients under age 65 who were diagnosed with a concussion between 2007-2014 were categorized by year of diagnosis, age group, sex, concussion classification, and health care setting of diagnosis (emergency department or physician’s office).

Overall, 43,884 patients were diagnosed with a concussion, with 55 percent being male. The highest incidence was in the 15-19 age group at 16.5 concussions per 1,000 patients, followed by ages 10-14 at 10.5, 20-24 at 5.2 and 5-9 at 3.5.

The study found that 56 percent of concussions were diagnosed in the emergency department, 29 percent in a physician’s office, and the remainder in urgent care or inpatient settings. As such, outpatient clinicians should have the same confidence and competence to manage concussion cases as emergency physicians, Zhang said.

A 60 percent increase in concussions occurred from 2007 to 2014 (3,529 to 8,217), with the largest growth in ages 10-14 at 143 percent and 15-19 at 87 percent. Based on classification, 29 percent of concussions were associated with some loss of consciousness.

A possible explanation for the significant number of adolescent concussions is increased participation in sports, said Zhang, MD, who is also assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at UCSF. It also may be reflective of an improved awareness for the injury by patients, parents, coaches, sports medical staff and treating physicians.

For example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “HEADS UP” initiative has caused numerous states such as California to alter guidelines for youth concussion treatment.

Many medical centers also are establishing specialty clinics to address this, which could be contributing to the increased awareness. At UCSF, the Sports Concussion Program evaluates and treats athletes who have suffered a sports-related concussion. The team includes experts from sports medicine, physical medicine and rehabilitation, neuropsychology and neurology. Their combined expertise allows for evaluation, diagnosis and management of athletes with sports concussions, helping them safely recover and return to sports.

Other UCSF orthopaedic surgery contributors to the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine study were senior author Carlin Senter, MD, associate professor; Brian Feeley, MD, associate professor; Caitlin Rugg, MD, resident; and David Sing, clinical research associate.

UC San Francisco (UCSF) is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. It includes top-ranked graduate schools of dentistry, medicine, nursing and pharmacy; a graduate division with nationally renowned programs in basic, biomedical, translational and population sciences; and a preeminent biomedical research enterprise. It also includes UCSF Health, which comprises two top-ranked hospitals, UCSF Medical Center and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco, and other partner and affiliated hospitals and healthcare providers throughout the Bay Area.

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