First Hard Evidence Found of Neuropsychological Effects of Deployment in Iraq
> 8/2/2006 9:54:01 AM

Ever since the current war in Iraq began over three years ago, there has been much discussion and debate about the mental health effects of prolonged combat. While reports have centered on post traumatic stress disorder, and for good reason, other mental health concerns such as major depression and substance abuse need also be kept in mind. One thing that the length of the conflict has allowed is more rigorous study and research. Scientists have had time to plan, vet and execute more comprehensive research, which will benefit us not only in this present engagement, but in many other potentially traumatic events that follow.

One such study has appeared in today's Journal of the American Medical Association. Jennifer J. Vasterling, of the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System and Tulane University, lead a team of researchers who found that veterans of deployment in Iraq suffered neuropsychological problems including slight lapses in memory function and a lack of ability to focus. The team also found that vets displayed an overall improvement in simple reaction time.

To come to these conclusions Vasterling, et al. gave a battery of tests to 654 soldiers before deployment along with 307 soldiers who were not sent to Iraq. They then surveyed the same group a short time after the soldiers in Iraq returned. Speaking to the New York Times, Dr. Vasterling tried to put her results into some context:

“We’re talking about a level of change that is not alarming and shouldn’t send people running to the doctor, but changes that some may notice when they are trying to perform in very demanding contexts” like a challenging civilian job, said the lead researcher, Jennifer J. Vasterling.

It has been hypothesized that the changes that the group found might be part of the body's adjustment to the rigors of living and working in a war zone. Areas of the brain that take on greater importance, such as those that control reaction times, are honed to a finer degree, while as other areas take a step back because of the lack of energy being devoted to their development.

Another psychiatrist, quoted by the Times, hits on the real importance of this research and other reports like it.

Dr. Andy Morgan, a psychiatrist at Yale, said the new findings, when further tracked over time, could help doctors predict which soldiers will adapt quickly to civilian life and which will have chronic problems adjusting. “This kind of data should help us find early markers of trouble,” Dr. Morgan said, “and help us learn how to intervene if someone is headed for pathology.”

Clearly, the experiences of soldiers in Iraq are affecting them in real, measurable ways. The more that we know and are able to understand, the better suited we will be to help aid in the readjustment process. Protracted military conflict can be trying and rigorous, but we may find unforeseen benefits in studies such as this, which seek to better understand the toll that military service can have on our soldiers. Beyond that however, we must be certain that this new data is incorporated into the treatment sphere so as to better serve veterans and the public.

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