Top Army General Says Brain Injury Blood Test to be “Huge”

It happens all the time on the football field: A linebacker takes a hard hit to his head, shakes it off, and plays the rest of the game. He may have a concussion, but because he feels fine, no one worries.

He is then 19 times more likely than average to develop Alzheimer’s or other neurological diseases, according to a 2009 NFL study.

It also happens to U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. An IED explosion leaves a soldier unhurt except for a nasty headache. Should he go to the hospital? A desire to be macho may keep him from seeking treatment, often with disastrous health results.

Imagine that a quick blood test—a finger pricked on the sports field, in military combat, and anywhere that head injuries happen—could instantly diagnose a concussion.

It may sound like science fiction, but according to U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff Peter Chiarelli, this will soon be reality.

The Army, in partnership with the NFL and the National Institutes of Health, is close to releasing a blood test that will use a biomarker signaling cell damage to detect brain injury.

“This is really critical,” Chiarelli, who is the Army’s second-in-command, said last Friday on the UT campus. “I think we are 14 to 18 months away from having a blood test for these invisible injuries. And it’s going to change medicine in a huge way.”

Chiarelli visited UT to share what the Army is doing to address “invisible injuries”: post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicide, and other behavioral and neurological wounds of war.

In recent years, Chiarelli said, the military has been plagued by suicide and mental health problems. For the first time in U.S. history, the Army’s suicide rate is now higher than that of the general population, he said.

“Suicide is a big problem, and to address it we are working on a whole range of issues, from legislation to leadership issues to the science of the brain,” he said. “Our knowledge of the brain is just not there yet. We don’t understand the brain as well as the rest of the body.”

Cultural stigma is also a huge barrier that keeps soldiers from seeking help for brain and behavioral problems, Chiarelli said.

Among the sobering statistics he presented: The average soldier waits 12 years to seek treatment for a traumatic brain injury. During that time, he is six times more likely to commit suicide or display partner aggression.

One reason soldiers are afraid to seek help is for fear that their military career will suffer if they admit to behavioral health problems.

Chiarelli said he is working with legislators to change a statute that puts restrictive measures on military superiors who order a soldier to get treatment.

This statute, he says, has prevented some leaders from urging soldiers to get the help they need, for fear that they will be sued, passed up for a promotion, or even fired.

“We want everyone to get help right away if they need it, and not worry that they will be perceived as any less manly, any less strong,” he said. “This is one of the biggest leadership challenges the Army has ever faced.”

Photo courtesy Marsha Miller

 

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