Historic Million-Veteran Study Could Lead to PTSD Research Breakthrough

Chief Master Sgt. Eric Corvin, 49th Maintenance Group Quality Assurance superintendent, sought PTSD treatment with the 49th Medical Group on Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. He enrolled in a 12-week program, which focused on the many aspects of PTSD and ways of coming to terms with the issues it causes. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christine Groening)
Chief Master Sgt. Eric Corvin, 49th Maintenance Group Quality Assurance superintendent, sought PTSD treatment with the 49th Medical Group on Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. He enrolled in a 12-week program, which focused on the many aspects of PTSD and ways of coming to terms with the issues it causes. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christine Groening)

The VA has teamed up with the Defense Department and thousands of veteran volunteers on what could be breakthrough research to get at the root causes of post-traumatic stress disorder and open up paths to new methods of treatment, according to VA officials.

The research could provide a "source of hope for veterans living with the invisible wounds of war, and it is our job to turn that hope into treatments," said Dr. Carolyn Clancy, the deputy undersecretary for Discovery, Education, and Affiliated Networks at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

At a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee Wednesday, Clancy said that the research project, in coordination with DoD, would follow thousands of veterans identified with mild traumatic brain injury received in combat.

Through intensive biological samplings and imaging, the researchers hope to gain the ability to identify biomarkers, or indicators of the presence of a disease or abnormality, that are associated with brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, Clancy said.

She also noted that the PTSD research, and other studies at the VA, would not be possible without the cooperation of veterans who choose to continue their service by volunteering to participate.

"These studies exist because veterans are willing to assist," giving the VA a marked advantage of private research institutions, Clancy said.

Clancy and Dr. Sumitra Muralidhar, director of the VA's Million Veteran Program (MVP), said the biomarker research, coupled with the vast database provided by MVP, had the potential to transform the way the department treats PTSD.

Since 2011, the MVP program has enrolled more than 750,000 veterans toward the goal of one million, making it already by far the world's largest genomic data bank, Muralidhar said.

In the program, participants donate blood, from which DNA is extracted. Then a baseline survey and periodic follow-ups track the veterans' careers, their health and their lifestyles. Research using the database will investigate whether the genetic information could hold keys to preventing and treating diseases.

The hearing, chaired by Rep. Julia Brownley, D-California, came on the eve of "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Day," observed on June 27.

According to the VA's National Center for PTSD, PTSD rates vary by service era. But estimates show 11-20% of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD in a given year.

In a message released by the White House to mark PTSD Awareness Day, President Donald Trump said that his administration was "coordinating with health care practitioners across the country to provide training and education in the use of evidence-based treatments for PTSD."

He said many veterans "bring the battlefield home with them, and we must ensure these courageous men and women have access to the resources and care they need to transition successfully back into civilian life."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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