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Military researchers are getting better clues into a suspected link between combat-related traumatic brain injuries and whether the shocks and jolts that come along with a battlefield blast or concussion may have long-term neurological effects.
Studies on the biological changes in the brain being done in collaboration with the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command and the Department of Veterans Affairs are showing an abnormal buildup of a protein called tau that is prevalent in people diagnosed with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, researchers said.
Additionally, the Army is performing a pivotal trial among 2,000 troops in Afghanistan that looks for biomarkers in the blood of soldiers who have suffered a mild TBI that is revealing promising results, said Col. Dallas Hack, who directs the Combat Casualty Care Research Program at Fort Detrick.
Hack, a doctor, said the Army is working with the Food and Drug Administration on the test and it could be approved in two years.
His comments came during a roundtable on brain injury from the Military Health System Research Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The annual symposium offers a chance for military health researchers to discuss scientific advances in care for war fighters in a collaborative and academic environment.
The science on TBI is emerging, and researchers have also been studying the effects of such injuries in athletes, including football and hockey players.
But clues may eventually lead to preventive measures and treatments and may also determine whether some people are more genetically predisposed for developing chronic neurological problems later in life.
There are currently no approved treatments for TBI, Hack said.
The problem with a TBI is that its detrimental effects may not be immediately apparent. Often, symptoms -- including depression, personality change and, eventually, dementia -- reveal themselves over years and decades, said Ann McKee, a doctor who directs the neuropathology service for the New England VA Medical Center.
"You can't see it," McKee said Wednesday. "Even if you were to look at the brain in your hands, there would be no obvious injury."
Researchers are studying neuroimaging and the use of spinal taps that look for the tau protein after a TBI to be able to diagnose problems in living patients much earlier, McKee said.
McKee has studied the brains of 68 people who were diagnosed postmortem with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease, she said. Of those 68, 21 were former military personnel who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Four of those brains were those of young soldiers who had fought in Afghanistan or Iraq, and three had suffered traumatic brain injuries, she said.