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Virginia Commonwealth University Explores the Long-term Impacts of Combat Concussions

The Department of defense and Veterans Affairs has awarded Virginia Commonwealth University with a $50 million federal grant to oversee a national research consortium. The research focuses on determining the chronic effects of brain injuries and includes 30 universities and 27 military and veterans’ medical facilities.

The study is led by David X. Cifu, M.D., professor and chair of the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and senior traumatic brain injury specialist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Cifu and his team are attempting to better understand the relationship between concussions and future neurological conditions like dementia and Parkinson’s disease in military personnel.

“We are getting a 360-degree overview of all aspects of these veterans and service members, from their brains and nervous systems to emotional well-being to their day-to-day functioning. We’re getting a full look because they’re enrolled in this ongoing comprehensive study,” Cifu said. “This is the largest study of its kind that is entailing a deeper dive and more thorough investigation than any person, patient or even research participant could get. The individual being studied is getting the most comprehensive evaluation of its kind because that is exactly what is required to finally understand these combat concussions and their linkages to symptoms and secondary conditions, like dementia.”

Approximately 384,000 United States service members experienced a traumatic brain injury between 2000 and 2018. 83% of the TBIs were classified as mild. Previous research has associated traumatic brain injury with increased risk for dementia and other conditions, including Parkinson’s, suicide risk, and Alzheimer’s disease. But according to Cifu, more needs to be done to fully understand these relationships, which is the goal of this study.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2012 that created the National Research Action Plan on Traumatic Brain Injury and Psychological Health. This plan led to research specifically focusing on the relationships between TBI, post-traumatic stress disorder, and long-term neurological conditions. 

Studies conducted by VA and civilian researchers at the University of California – San Diego and Harvard University concluded that patients who had concussions had a higher risk of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression after the injury, compared to those who had suffered a traumatic injury but whose head was not involved.

Other studies have also linked concussions with an increase in potential for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, dementia and other conditions. Cifu believes that the research needs to go further. He believes that if their team can understand the relationship between concussions and brain changes or deterioration of life, that it may lead to preventative measures or therapies.

“We are going to be the link to help people understand when they have this kind of injury, what is the chance they are going to get to a level of dementia and what can you do to prevent it from happening,” Cifu said.

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