Brain Research Could Lead to Breakthroughs for Troops with TBI, PTSD

Lt. Col. (Dr.) Wilmer Jones, 332nd Expeditionary Medical Group vascular surgeon, reviews medical images at Joint Base Balad, Iaq on April 13, 2009.
By Leo Shane III
Stars and Stripes

Published: April 2, 2013


WASHINGTON — The White House on Tuesday unveiled a $100 million research initiative to better understand how the human brain works, a bold undertaking with potentially life-changing ramifications for troops with debilitating combat injuries.

“Imagine if we could reverse traumatic brain injury or PTSD for our veterans who are coming home … That’s what we’re imagining. That’s what we’re hoping for,” President Barack Obama said at the project announcement, before a crowd of neurology scientists and surgeons. “They’re ambitious goals, but they’re achievable.”

Officials said the new effort — a “grand challenge” along the lines of the moon race and the human genome project — was mentioned by Obama in his State of the Union address and is designed as a far-reaching partnership.

Medical schools and private firms will work alongside government institutes to develop a map of neural pathways and chemical structures in the brain. Tracking trillions of microscopic mental activities will require new computer programs, data storage systems and analytical approaches.

Half of the $100 million will go the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, with the goal of “demonstrating breakthrough applications” based on the new findings. Director Arati Prabhakar said her agency’s work in the field was prompted by the injuries of returning troops and the promise of medical breakthroughs that could improve their lives.

According to the Congressional Research Service, more than 250,000 troops have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injuries. That doesn’t account for tens of thousands more whose brain injuries stay undiagnosed for months after the return home. Department of Veterans Affairs researchers say as many as one in four veterans might have suffered a traumatic brain injury while serving overseas.

DARPA researchers are looking at regenerating processing systems within the brain, in an effort to help reverse memory loss, mood swings and decreased brain function from battlefield injuries. The new effort, Prabhakar said, will help move that work ahead.

The White House has assembled a “dream team” of top neurological experts to develop a plan of attack for the project, with the $100 million in fiscal 2014 as the first installment of a multi-year funding effort.

Dr. Ali Rezai, director of Ohio State University’s Neuroscience Program, called the White House effort a significant step forward for the research field.

“The frontier here is very large,” he said. “Cancer and heart disease knowledge has developed nicely over the years. But the brain is still very much unknown.”

He said researchers know how traumatic brain injury can affect speech and memory, but better maps of neural pathways and chemical interactions hold the promise of cures and preventive care for those wounds.

For example, more knowledge of how different parts of the brain interact could help predict which troops are more susceptible to PTSD or concussions. Learning how to fix different parts of the brain could restore wounded troops’ ability to speak or walk.

Prabhakar said the work could also produce dramatic results with other battlefield injuries, such as helping amputees control advanced prosthetics with their minds.

Obama said he hopes the work will also produce new treatments for individuals battling epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

“We have a chance to improve the lives of not just millions, but billions of people on this planet,” he said. “But it’s going to require a serious effort, a sustained effort.”

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Twitter: @LeoShane

Cuomo Appoints New Veterans’ Affairs Head

Posted on March 11, 2013 at 9:57 am by James M. Odato in Andrew CuomoMilitary

U.S. Army Col. Eric J. Hesse is headed to a new assignment: the new director of the New York State Division of Veterans’ Affairs.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is announcing on Monday the appointment.

“Colonel Hesse has a long and distinguished record as an Army leader dedicated to improving the readiness of our military and serving our nation both overseas and here in New York State,” Cuomo said. “As director of New York State’s Division of Veterans’ Affairs, he will continue his distinguished career of service by helping lead our state’s efforts to ensure New York’s veterans are receiving the support that they need.”

Hesse said: “I am honored to join Governor Cuomo’s administration and help guide the state’s efforts to ensure that New York takes care of veterans and provides our returning military service members with the support and benefits that they deserve. Since taking office, the Governor has worked to make New York State friendlier for veterans, including returning service members as they transition into civilian life and seek employment opportunities here in our state. I look forward to working in this administration on behalf of all our veterans.”

Colonel Hesse retired from the Army last week after more than 26 years of service that included deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo.

Since July 2009, Colonel Hesse served as Command Inspector General of the New York Army and Air National Guard in Latham, New York where he was responsible for ensuring the readiness of an 18,000-member organization dispersed across New York State. His efforts focused on professional development and education programs as well as implementing a statewide inspection oversight effort aimed at improving military readiness.

Colonel Hesse previously served as Command Inspector General of the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum (New York) where his duties included the readiness of 10,000 soldiers at Fort Drum and Fort Polk (Louisiana) and providing support to a community of retired military personnel and their families.


Cuomo appoints new veterans’ affairs head