By Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON D.C.,  U.S.A. – Veterans put their lives on the line for America every day during their time in the military. Although we hope they survive their time of duty, many are unaware of the consequences of their services once they return home. One example of this is the traumatic brain injuries experienced by veterans as a result of combat.

According to a new study, U.S. veterans are likely to suffer the same kind of brain disease as concussion victims.  Boston University has been doing a study on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which is the disease in question here. CTE is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people who have had repetitive brain trauma (often athletes), including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic sub-concussive hits to the head that do not cause symptoms.

At the Veterans Affairs Center in Bedford Massachusetts, researchers study brains for signs of CTE which can only be done during autopsy. Photo Courtesy of Gretchen Ertl.

The repetitive brain trauma triggers the progressive degeneration of brain tissue, including a build-up of an abnormal protein called tau. These changes in a brain can begin months, years, or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active duty or athletic involvement. Common symptoms of CTE include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, suicide, Parkinsonism, and ultimately progressive dementia.

Veterans from combat zones often experience different kinds of trauma from exposure to blast waves. At Boston University, neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee discovered CTE in veterans, which at this time can only be confirmed through brain autopsies. So far, 65 percent of the brains she has seen of deceased veterans exposed to combat blasts showed CTE.

Dr. McKee stated that a blast wave can damage a brain in the same way as a physical blow. “This blast injury creates a tremendous… ricochet or whiplash injury to the brain inside the skull.” The effects on the brain are not readily seen on images, she says, “This has been what everyone calls an invisible injury.”

Following in Dr. McKee’s footsteps, Dr. Sam Gandy, of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, began using newly developed technology to find the markers of CTE in living veterans in order to alert those who may have the disease and help find a way to stop the disease’s deadly progress. These images from new technology will be crucial in his work with drug companies to develop a treatment.  “That’s step one,” he tells Alfonsi, “Just to stop it dead in its tracks. And then we can worry about making people feel better.”

For more information, please see:

CBS News – Combat Veterans Suffering From Same Brain Disease as Concussion Victims – 4 January 2018

CNN – Could Veterans Have Concussion Related CTE? – 6 April 2015

New York Times – Brain Ailments in Veterans Likened to Those in Athlete’s – 16 May 2012

BU Research CTE Center –FAQ 

Author: Sarah Louise Purtill

is a second-year law student at Syracuse University College of Law (SUCOL). In addition to being an Impunity Watch News Reporter, she is an Associate Editor for the Syracuse Journal of International Law and Commerce. Sarah is the Media Managing Editor for Syracuse Law and Civic Engagement Forum as well as the Treasurer for Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity’s Carmody Chapter at SUCOL. She is also serving her second term as a Class Senator for the Student Bar Association at SUCOL. Sarah is a student attorney at the Elder and Health Law Clinic of SUCOL. Sarah graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Honors Program in June of 2016 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and a Minor in History. Sarah expects to graduate with her Juris Doctor from SUCOL in May of 2019.