2006 August 01 Tuesday
Cognitive Declines In Iraq Veterans

Iraq war veterans in the United States show poorer memory, reduced ability to pay attention, and other cognitive changes.

Jennifer J. Vasterling, Ph.D., of the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System and Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans and colleagues conducted a study to examine neuropsychological outcomes following Iraq deployment. The study included 961 male and female active-duty Army Soldiers. Deploying Army Soldiers (n = 654) were examined prior to deployment to Iraq (April-December 2003) and shortly after return (within an average of 73 days; January-May 2005) from Iraq deployment. There was also a comparison group of soldiers (n = 307) similar in military characteristics but not deploying overseas. Participants were individually administered performance-based neuropsychological tasks.

The researchers found that Iraq deployment, compared with nondeployment, was associated with mild neuropsychological compromise on tasks of sustained attention, verbal learning, and visual-spatial memory. Iraq deployment was also associated with increased negative effects on measures of confusion and tension. In contrast, deployment was associated with improved simple reaction time and no changes on other neuropsychological tasks. Deployment effects remained statistically significant after taking into account deployment-related head injury and stress and depression symptoms. The researchers interpret their findings as the carry-over into the home environment of what was likely an adaptive brain-based survival response in the combat zone.

If the changes were due to an adaptive response back in a home environment the changes might eventually dissipate. But even if the changes are not due to neuronal damage (and we do not know if that is the case) the possibility exists that their brains will not revert back to configurations more like what they had before they left.

The unanswered question is how much of these changes are permanent?

In an editorial accompanying the study, medical psychiatrists Matthew Hotopf, PhD, and Simon Wessely, FMedSci, weighed in on the issue. Both have done extensive research on post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) among soldiers.

They wrote that while the subtle mental changes outlined in the study bear some similarities to PTSD, they might also be considered perfectly normal coping behaviors. Longer follow-up of the soldiers in the study should help determine if the reactions are normal or cause for concern, they concluded.

Double digit percentages of returning war veterans show signs of post-traumatic stress.

A Pentagon study in JAMA earlier this year found that 35 percent of Iraq vets received psychological counseling shortly after returning, and earlier research found that about 17 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq had symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

About 11 percent of the vets Vasterling studied reported such symptoms upon their return, she said.

War is hell.

Advances in neural stem cell research will eventually lead to methods to repair some of the brain damage in soldiers under heavy sustained stress. Also, the potential exists that drugs could be found that would reduce the stress response and provide protection for neurons. Also, genetic studies will probably eventually turn up tests that show which people are most at risk of post traumatic stress disorder and other undesirable cognitive changes from combat.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2006 August 01 04:53 PM  Mideast Iraq Costs


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