Researchers at Harvard Medical School believe that Tardigrades — tiny, hardy creatures — may secrete protein which can reverse the brain damage that so many Iraq and Syria veterans sustained while they were in-county. Doctors theorize that these creatures release proteins that slow tissue damage and even prevent cell death altogether. The team believes that the experiment could have a wide range of applications. “It really started out as a wacky, high-risk idea,” admitted Harvard researcher Pamela Silver. She and her team believe that they can isolate these proteins and use them to help human Traumatic Brain Injury victims.
Tardigrades are microscopic creatures that look like a cross between a pig, a teddy bear, and a hippopotamus. Tardigrades can survive exposure to large amounts of radiation, as well as temperatures ranging from -450 to 300 degrees.
Emerging Understanding of PTSD and Other Brain Injuries
Cutting-edge experiments like the one described above are just the latest in a series of innovative looks at both Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injuries.
Many people believe that the first recorded incident of modern PTSD is in Henry IV, Part I, a 1600 William Shakespeare play. In Act II, Scene 2, Lady Percy laments the state of her husband Hotspur, who has just returned from war. The symptoms she recounts are eerily similar to modern PTSD symptoms:
O my good lord, why are you thus alone?
For what offense have I this fortnight been
A banished woman from my Harry’s bed?
Senseless and random anger directed at family members
Tell me, sweet lord, what is ’t that takes from thee
Thy stomach, pleasure,
Inability to experience pleasure
and thy golden sleep?
Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth
And start so often when thou sit’st alone?
For years, doctors believed that PTSD was a processing disorder that randomly affected some soldiers but not others. Now researchers know that exposure to combat stress erodes the cerebral cortex. This part of the brain controls logical reactions. When the cerebral cortex shrinks, the amygdala grows. This part of the brain controls emotional responses.
This imbalance is like a wild horse and an experienced rider. If the rider loosens his grip on the reins, the horse goes wild. As the cerebral cortex shrinks, the amygdala goes wild. That state of affairs explains the aforementioned PTSD symptoms.
The latest research also suggests that this imbalance often occurs after repeated exposure to rather low-key stress, such as being in a foxhole or witnessing combat from afar. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is much the same. Usually, the cumulative effect of small impacts causes CTE in professional football players.
Of course, one sudden large impact could also cause this kind of damage. It is the same with other kinds of brain injuries.
Except for PTSD, combat-related brain injuries were almost unheard of prior to World War I’s outbreak in 1914. Until then, most soldiers wore decorative headgear, like felt caps, as opposed to protective headgear. That is because the world’s armies used picric acid, a substance which is much like fireworks, in their ordnance. Between 1900 and 1910, commanders switched to TNT.
Modern TNT is much more devastating than the stuff used in cannonballs a century ago. As a result, combat-related head injuries occur in several different ways:
- Trauma: If a roadside bomb or other explosive device goes off within a few feet, it causes devastating trauma injuries. Unlike other bodily tissue, dead brain cells never regenerate.
- Motion: The shock of an explosive blast usually knocks a person violently backwards. This sudden motion scrambles the brain without cracking the skull, just like a person can shake an egg and scramble it without breaking the shell.
- Sudden Loud Noises: Even a person two or three blocks away from an IED blast might sustain a brain injury. These blasts generate shock waves which disrupt normal brain functions.
Put another way, PTSD is basically an occupational disease. This injury occurs over time, much like hearing loss usually occurs over time. A TBI, as the name implies, is a trauma injury. One incident causes these wounds. As outlined below, the Defense Base Act applies in both these situations.
Treating Brain Injuries
From start to finish, treating TBIs and PTSD is a difficult process. Furthermore, as these injuries are permanent, it is also a frustrating process. Hopefully, research like the Tardigrade experiment will help in both these areas.
The aforementioned football player CTE sheds light on the difficulty in diagnosing these injuries. Many concussed football players tell their coaches they “feel fine,” so they ask to go back into the game. They do not want to let their teammates down.
These players are not lying. They really do “feel fine” even though they just sustained serious brain injuries. The brain is adept at concealing its own injuries. So neither they, nor the team trainers, know about the injury, in many cases.
The same is true on the battlefield. Contractors do not want to let their teammates down. They want to get back into the action. So, they often tell the medic they “feel fine” and take up their positions again. The brain injury only becomes apparent later.
Shortly thereafter, symptoms begin appearing, like tinnitus (ringing in the ears) or sleeplessness. Many times, doctors dismiss these symptoms as shock from the combat episode. As a result, victims do not get the treatment they need, and their injuries get worse.
This treatment sometimes involves surgery. A doctor may be able to reduce brain swelling and therefore prevent the situation from deteriorating further.
Typically, physical therapy is about the only available treatment. Brain injury physical therapy is a lot different from broken bone physical therapy. Instead of exercising existing muscles, the therapist must train uninjured portions of the brain to assume the lost functions. Often, progress is measured in inches, and it occurs in fits and starts.
Tardigrade therapy and stem cell therapy may soon help doctors regenerate dead brain cells and reduce the effects of a TBI. But these treatments are several years away, at best.
Injury Compensation Available
Whether the brain injury occurs because of an occupational disease or a sudden trauma injury, the resulting medical expenses are significant. The Defense Base Act covers both these situations.
There are only a few other eligibility requirements. For example, the injury must occur outside the United States and in a DBA war zone. A “war zone” is any country where the United States maintains any permanent military presence. That could be a sprawling air force base, a single military attache, or anything in between.
Additionally, DBA victims do not need to prove fault or negligence to obtain compensation for lost wages and medical bills. Nearly all DBA claims settle out of court, and many of them settle before an Administrative Law Judge even schedules the matter for a hearing.
Contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A. to learn more about the benefits available under the Defense Base Act.