Study Confirms: War Stress Takes Toll on a Soldier’s Brain

The good news is that there may be ways to diminish the effects.
Soldiers run for cover after hearing insurgent gunfire near the village of Qandaro in the Pech River Valley of Afghanistan's Kunar province. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters)
Sep 4, 2012
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

Dutch scientists have reported that, “A single four-month deployment to Afghanistan is associated with brain changes and diminished attention,” says Science News. “Most changes went away a year and a half after returning from combat, suggesting that the brain can largely heal itself.”

The study involved researchers from the University of Amsterdam conducting “brain scans while the soldiers performed a lab test that required them to hold several numbers in their memory simultaneously.” They didn’t find any differences between soldiers who were about to be deployed for the first time and those who were still in training. But after the soldiers experienced combat, it was a different story.

Science News notes that, “After their return, the soldiers went back to the lab for another round of brain scans. During the memory task, the post-deployment brain scans showed lower activity in the midbrain, a region known to be involved in working memory, compared with the brains before deployment. What’s more, midbrain tissue showed signs of damage and weaker connections with another brain region, the prefrontal cortex. Together, the midbrain and prefrontal cortex are involved in working memory and attention, among other things.”

MORE: Gulf War Veteran Breaks the Glass Ceiling for Female Soldiers Dreaming of College

These results aren’t surprising in light of other research that’s examined the effects of war on soldiers. In 2011, FairWarning reported that a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that, “Combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder is more likely to have long-lasting effects on soldiers than concussions or ‘mild traumatic’ brain injuries . . . The researchers cited symptoms such as diminished concentration and memory, along with irritability and problems with balance.”

On the flip side, in a 2009 article in USA Today, Richard Tedeschi, an expert in post-traumatic growth at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, was collaborating on a project with the Army. “Even though he calls the initiative ‘uncharted territory, Tedeschi says research indicates that soldiers have found value in their combat experiences. If informed about potential for post-traumatic growth beginning in basic training, he says, soldiers might not automatically assume that the combat experience produces PTSD and you're kind of doomed . . . At the same time, as this trauma separates them from other people, it also allows them to maybe see themselves as more human than they ever were before, have a closer connection with what it means to be a human being.’"

Tedeschi’s notion that soldiers should learn about post-traumatic growth during training is in sync with advice offered by HealthGuidance that states, “what we need to ask ourselves is how we can protect them from mental trauma before they are even sent to fight, as opposed to treating their symptoms once the deep psychological damage has already been done.”

The Science News report has one suggestion: “Along with the finding that the brain can reverse the changes given enough time to recover, may mean that soldiers ought to have longer periods of time between deployments . . . Multiple stressful deployments in quick succession may prevent recovery.”

Do you think the military could be doing more to help soldiers cope with post-traumatic stress? If so, what?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence |

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