Nicholas Kristof has a breakthrough column today, “Veterans and Brain Disease,” NYT.
He writes about the autopsy of a Marine who committed suicide after two tours in Iraq:
“His brain had been physically changed by a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. That’s a degenerative condition best know for affecting boxers, football players and other athletes who endure repeated blows to the head.
In people with C.T.E., an abnormal form of a protein accumulates and eventually destroys cells throughout the brain, including the frontal and temporal lobes. Those are areas that regulate impulse control, judgment, multitasking, memory and emotions.
“That Marine was the first Iraq veteran found to have C.T.E., but experts have since autopsied a dozen or more other veterans’ brains and have repeatedly found C.T.E. The findings raise a critical question: Could blasts from bombs or grenades have a catastrophic impact similar to those of repeated concussions in sports, and could the rash of suicides among young veterans be a result?
“‘P.T.S.D. in a high-risk cohort like war veterans could actually be a physical disease from permanent brain damage, not a psychological disease,‘ said Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist who examined the veteran.
“The discovery of C.T.E. in veterans could be stunningly important. Sadly, it could also suggest that the worst is yet to come, for C.T.E. typically develops in midlife, decades after exposure. If we are seeing C.T.E. now in war veterans, we may see much more in the coming years.
“C.T.E. leads to a degenerative loss of memory and thinking ability and, eventually, to dementia. There is also often a pattern of depression, impulsiveness, and, all too often, suicide. There is now no treatment, or even a way of diagnosing C.T.E. other than examining the brain after death.” Emphasis added.
This article made me wonder if what was called “shellshock” after WWI may have been C.T.E. Also, much of what we’re doing for our veterans right now may be a complete waste — if they have C.T.E., anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs and cognitive therapies like anger management won’t provide any relief.