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VA Research Spotlight

Highlights of VA research on brain health

March 18, 2020

In honor of Brain Awareness Week, our focus is on research that looks at brain injury, neurodegenerative disease, and mental health.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

Traumatic brain injury Fact Sheet The Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC) reported nearly 414,000 traumatic brain injuries among U.S. service members worldwide between 2000-2019. The majority of those TBIs were classified as mild. TBI is also a significant cause of disability outside of military settings, most often as the result of assaults, falls, automobile accidents, or sports injuries. It can involve symptoms ranging from headaches, irritability, and sleep disorders to memory problems, slower thinking, and depression.

* For more information on research devoted to brain health see our topic pages on Alzheimer's Disease, Depression, Mental Health, Parkinson's Disease, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).


VA Research in Action

Eye-tracking device for early Parkinson's detection Eye-tracking device for early Parkinson's detection
Researchers with VA and Virginia Commonwealth University have developed an eye motion test that could help detect and diagnose Parkinson’s disease at an early stage. The device is now licensed to a private company for commercial development.


Assessment tool for military TBI Assessment tool for military TBI
VA researchers developed an assessment tool to diagnose and evaluate traumatic brain injury in Veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Boston Assessment of Traumatic Brain Injury-Lifetime has become a gold standard for assessing mild TBI specific to Veterans. It is in use at many VA medical centers and War Related Illness and Injury Study Center sites across the country.


PTSD Coach app PTSD Coach app
In 2011, clinicians at VA’s National Center for PTSD, drawing on research and evidence-based practice from in and outside VA, developed PTSD Coach, a self-management mobile app. As of mid-2019, PTSD Coach has been downloaded more than 425,000 times in over 100 countries and shown encouraging results in several studies.


VA Research Currents

VA, DOD embark on new endeavor to study mysteries of traumatic brain injury VA, DOD embark on new endeavor to study mysteries of traumatic brain injury

"Long-term Impact of Military Relevant Brain Injury Consortium," or LIMBIC, is the world's largest research cohort of Veterans and Service members that is dedicated to the study of mild traumatic brain injury (mild TBI), also known as a concussion.... (01/14/2020)


Research underscores need for further rehab years after brain injury Research underscores need for further rehab years after brain injury

A new study shows the need for rehab services for Vets at five years after a brain injury. Many patients, caregivers, and providers mistakenly believe such services are relevant only in the short term.... (11/13/2019)


Study: New brain stimulation technique shows promise in easing PTSD Study: New brain stimulation technique shows promise in easing PTSD

A new VA study found that a form of brain stimulation that can rapidly improve communication between neurons in the brain helped ease PTSD symptoms. The team is also using virtual reality as part of PTSD therapy... (07/10/2019)


Comprehending the effects of blastsComprehending the effects of blasts

One way researchers are trying to untangle the mysteries of traumatic brain injury is through animal models, namely rats and mice, and simulated blasts. The goal is to better understand the effects of blasts on the brain, and thereby develop new therapies to heal Veterans and others.... (06/27/2019)


Can brain stimulation ward off dementia?Can brain stimulation ward off dementia?

A VA researcher in Little Rock aims to delay Alzheimer’s through a form of brain stimulation. The target population is those with mild cognitive impairment who display the psychological trait of apathy, shown to be a key risk factor for progression to full-blown dementia. ... (06/26/2019)


Study finds high levels of abnormally fast brain waves in mild brain injury Study finds high levels of abnormally fast brain waves in mild brain injury

A VA San Diego study finds that Vets and service members with a history of combat-related mild traumatic brain injury have much higher levels of abnormally fast brain waves in a region that plays a key role in consciousness.... (05/09/2019)

VA Research News Briefs

Quality of life improvements for PTSD patients differ by gender

Quality of life improvements for PTSD patients differ by gender - Photos for illustrative purposes only.  ©iStock/ Petko Ninov; DigitalSkillsetPhotos for illustrative purposes only. ©iStock/ Petko Ninov; DigitalSkillset

(03/06/2020)
How PTSD treatment improves quality of life differs in men and women patients, found a study by VA San Diego researchers. While cognitive processing therapy has been shown to improve PTSD symptoms, the treatment’s effect on quality of life is less well-understood. The study looked at quality of life outcomes of men and women undergoing this treatment. Results showed that a reduction in depression symptoms was most likely to improve quality of life for women with PTSD. For men, reduced feelings of anger best predicted quality of life improvements. The findings suggest that the effectiveness of PTSD treatment should be evaluated within the context of gender, say the researchers. (Military Medicine, Feb. 20, 2020)

Possible biomarkers of traumatic brain injury identified

Possible biomarkers of traumatic brain injury identified - Photo: ©iStock/nicolasPhoto: ©iStock/nicolas

(03/06/2020)
VA researchers and colleagues identified six new biomarkers that could possibly be used to identify traumatic brain injury caused by blasts. In a mouse model of blast exposure, the researchers performed two different tests to identify proteins linked to TBI. They found 75 unique proteins present in the thalamus of blast-exposed mice but not in control mice. They also tested the blood and found antibodies linked to 46 proteins in blast-exposed mice. Six of the identified proteins showed up in both tests. These six proteins have potential as biomarkers to identify blast-related TBI through blood tests, say the researchers. (Heliyon, Feb. 17, 2020)

Sense of purpose may protect against cognitive decline

Sense of purpose may protect against cognitive decline - Photo: ©iStock/FG TradePhoto: ©iStock/FG Trade

(02/13/2020)
Having a sense of purpose in life may protect against cognitive decline, found an Atlanta VA and Emory University study. In a survey of more than 5,000 middle-aged participants, a greater sense of purpose was linked with less perceived cognitive decline. Statistical analysis showed that purpose in life is a strong predictor of cognitive decline when considered along with known protective and risk factors for cognition. Protective factors include education, exercise, and activity levels. Risk factors for cognitive decline include depression, health problems, and smoking. Interventions to enhance purpose in life as early as middle age may be useful, according to the researchers. (Journal of Affective Disorders, Feb. 15, 2020)

Brain structures account for transcranial magnetic stimulation effectiveness

Brain structures account for transcranial magnetic stimulation effectiveness -

(10/02/2019)
A team including Providence VA Medical Center researchers identified brain structures that influence the effectiveness of transcranial magnetic stimulation for PTSD and depression. In TMS, magnets are placed on the outside of the head to affect electrical signals in the brain. The therapy has emerged in recent studies as a promising treatment for PTSD. Researchers used MRI to study the pre-TMS brain structure of 20 patients. Those with greater connectivity in the anterior thalamic radiation (fiber pathways in the white matter) had greater symptom relief after TMS. The results suggest that this brain area could be a good target for TMS treatment, according to the researchers. (Depression and Anxiety, Sept. 2, 2019)

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