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Soldiers deserve more scrutiny of effects of brain traumas

Memorial Day is not simply about the past and honoring those who died. The wounds of war are carried by every person who has served. Two recent announcements mark an important shift in how the government identifies, treats, and prevents brain injuries sustained in war. A recent study by Boston University researchers about the dangers of combat concussions, coupled with the Army’s almost simultaneous decision to review all diagnoses involving post-traumatic stress disorder since 2001, should prompt an overhaul in the military’s treatment of brain injuries.

The researchers, Lee Goldstein and Ann McKee, have compiled conclusive evidence that brain injuries caused by improvised explosive devices such as those used in Iraq and Afghanistan have similar long-term effects to those caused by blows received during football or boxing. This is significant because it suggests that soldiers who have been exposed to such explosions may develop long-term neurological diseases. The depression or other psychological issues suffered by many returning soldiers may have less to do with their adjustments to civilian life and more to do with physical disorders, much like those suffered by football players years after they retire. These findings should also assist the military in its development of equipment that would better protect soldiers’ heads, while still giving them the flexibility to fight.

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As if on cue, the Army now seems well aware of its responsibility to keep probing the injuries soldiers have sustained, and to do everything possible to get them proper treatment. For many years, that commitment has been lacking. Army leaders are now launching an independent review of how they evaluate PTSD and whether too many soldiers were misdiagnosed as healthy based on faulty science or a concern over rising medical costs.

Both efforts are important, and Boston University’s continuing commitment to brain-injury studies is an example about how research in Massachusetts continues to enhance medical understanding. It will help provide soldiers with more detailed evaluations and the treatment they need. However late this help comes, the soldiers deserve it. It is their Memorial Day, too.

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