Studying brains to understand TBI

By: Soldiersmediacenter

At the VA Medical Center in Bedford, Massachusetts, critical research is under way into how the human brain works. Experts are studying the brains of deceased NFL players and war veterans to get a better understanding of traumatic brain injury, or TBI. [explosion] [female speaker] We are just starting to understand that a traumatic brain injury isn't just a single event.

It doesn't just occur, the person gets better, and life goes on and they're fine. A traumatic brain injury can have long-lasting effects. [Thomas] According to Dr. McKee, TBI can act as a trigger that launches a neurodegenerative process in the brain. In layman's terms, this involves brain cells that gradually break down. A cause may be the buildup of a protein called tau, which has been found in the brains of deceased NFL players and war veterans. The brain of these individuals should be completely pristine.

And what we're finding in the brains of individuals who have suffered traumatic brain injury is this abnormal tau protein builds up. It builds up inside the nerve cells, it cuts off the function, and eventually, it kills the cells. We need to figure out why that protein builds up and especially how to prevent it from building up, and that's how we're going to treat our military veterans. [Thomas] This degenerative condition is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, more commonly referred to as CTE.

What makes it difficult to diagnose--at least right now-- is that the disease can only be detected after a person has died through a close examination of the brain. But researchers like Dr. McKee are working extremely hard to understand CTE so it can be prevented. [McKee] What we want to do is apply everything we've learned from the brain after death to the living individual.

Studying brains to understand TBI

We want to first of all be able to treat veterans who have this injury so that they don't develop more severe side effects, and we want to be able to prevent it. Both of these things--prevention and treatment-- can't occur unless we really understand what this disease is. [Thomas] Among the hundreds of human brains stored at the brain bank, only about 30 show signs of TBI, with almost half of those belonging to professional football players. [McKee] It's always hard to find brain donors. The family has to agree to brain donation after death, and they don't want their loved ones to go through any more. But the importance of the brain donation is that we've gained so much information. And the knowledge that we can gain from the brain donation can be applied to living veterans, applied to living individuals, and so the memory of the person who's died can live on forever in helping other individuals.

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