Brain at War Conference helps vets returning from war

by Jonathan Farrell

For the past six years the Brain at War Conference, held each summer in June, has raised awareness of the growing healthcare needs of military veterans returning home from combat. As the conflict in the Middle East continues, the war on terrorism is causing a tremendous impact upon military personnel and their families. Some estimate that over the next five years more than one million service members will be re-entering civilian life.

Through the Northern California Institute of Research and Education (NCIRE), in partnership with the San Francisco VA Medical Center and University of California San Fran­cisco Medical Center, doctors, researchers and specialists have been working closely in the effort to improve the quality of care veterans receive. This is especially so in the area of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or battle fatigue as it used to be called.

The annual conference is hosted by NCIRE at the Marines Memorial Hotel in downtown San Francisco. Representatives at the conference point to the advances current modern technology has made and illustrate how that new technology can be put to use to assist veterans. While the conference also addresses other health issues impacting veterans, such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, cancer and heart disease, TBI and PTSD remain the most common conditions veterans have.

In the past, part of the obstacle in dealing with PTSD and various forms of TBI was diagnosis. A combat soldier may appear to be in good shape after a battle or serving in a combat zone, but soon that soldier starts to manifest symptoms of a brain injury. New digital imaging technology and other high-tech tools are now shedding light on the effects of TBI and PTSD. As researchers make inroads to mapping the brain, new technologies offer hope.

Currently, imaging technology can highlight structural changes and brain-wave activity in the various parts of the brain. Yet, as Dr. Gary Abrams mentioned: "At present there are no definite bio-markers for either disorder."

As a professor in the Depart­ment of Neurology at UCSF and as rehabilitation section chief at the VA Medical Center, he is very familiar with the situation. Much of the difficulty with diagnosis and follow up "pertains to mild TBI or concussions," Abrams said. "Moderate to severe TBIs frequently have clinical findings or imaging abnormalities that make diagnosis much easier. However, mild TBI makes up approximately 80 percent of all the TBIs experienced by the veteran population."

Abrams also mentioned that some advanced technology now used is not readily available. Some procedures and practices used at the VA in San Francisco are not standard everywhere.

"Sometimes it can be certain types of software or new treatments not being widely known, etc," he said.

The annual Brain at War conference is important because it invites specialists and researchers to join in on the discussion and to emphasize the importance of TBI and PTSD in health care for veterans.

Despite these challenges, Abrams remains hopeful.

"I am confident that at some point soon on the horizon, improved diagnostic methods will become a reality. It is simply a matter of time."

To learn more about NCIRE and the Brain at War Conference, visit the website at