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The Pentagon has created a brain bank in the Washington suburbs to research the damage that can occur during military service, particularly in combat from exposure to blast waves.
Only one brain sample has been collected so far as officials embark on a lengthy process of determining how best to educate troops about brain donation and their families about consenting to the process after a loved one dies.
"A big part of this is this educational outreach campaign that we have (in preparation) so that families and servicemembers will know that this repository exists and the importance of the work that we do," says Dan Perl, a neuropathologist who is lead investigator for research at the Rockville, Md., site.
Perl says he hopes the donation process will work in a similar way to how many servicemembers agree to donate vital organs to save lives.
"Mild traumatic brain injury is one of the signature injuries of the war," says Jonathon Woodson, the Pentagon's top medical officer. "The brain repository is one way of helping with ... untangling some of the mysteries."
A key goal is understanding subtle changes to the brain, which over time can result in dementia. A small study of four servicemembers' brains completed this year by Department of Veterans Affairs scientists showed evidence of a progressive disorder known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
The same disorder — marked by memory loss, aggression and suicidal thoughts — has been found in deceased NFL players and professional boxers who endured repetitive concussions.
Concussions or mild traumatic brain injuries have long been a risk for troops in combat who repeatedly endure exposure to blasts from roadside bombs — known as improvised explosives devices, or IEDs. Studies estimate that several hundred thousand troops may have suffered concussions caused by IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan
Repetitive damage can cause destructive buildup of a tau protein in the brain, evidence of CTE. This can be diagnosed currently only through brain autospy.
"We're particularly interested in the degree and extent to which CTE is a problem for the military," Perl says.
"The whole idea is to understand not only what's happening," Woodson says, "but what magnitude of injury might precipitate this (brain damage) and how we might intervene."
Brains decay rapidly after death and permission to receive a specimen must be gotten quickly, says Army Col. Dallas Hack, who directs military medical research funding.
The brain repository is part of a new $70 million Center for the Study of Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine, a joint project of the Defense Department and National Institutes of Health.