It’s Time to Treat the War Wounds We Can’t See

An innovative new program aims to shine more light on traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, which affect two-thirds of troops returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gen. Peter Chiarelli, CEO of The Gemini Project, shown here with Tom Hanks, says we need a full-throttle effort to understand and treat brain disorders. (Photo: One Mind For Research)

Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California.

Mental Health Innovation: The Gemini Program

Brain injuries are, so to speak, on people's minds these days. There's a lot of talk, for instance, about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain disease that afflicted the late NFL star Junior Seau. CTE is thought to result from repeated trauma to the head. And then there was the recent report that the number of suicides in the military surpassed combat deaths in 2012. 

But as widespread as brain-based diseases and mental illness are, we're not moving quickly enough to understand these problems better and cure them. The Gemini Program, a public-private organization that's just starting to address severe brain-based diseases on the upswing in the U.S., aims to do something about that. It’s a creation of One Mind For Research, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to curing the diseases of the brain and eliminating the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness and brain injuries. The project aims to apply the best science—as fast as possible—to the problems of traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress (PTS).

Who: General Peter Chiarelli (Ret.)

What He Does: CEO of One Mind for Research; retired four-star general. When General Chiarelli left his position as Vice Chief of Staff in the Army in 2012, the incidence of TBI and PTS had risen to 67 percent of troops returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. "When I assumed that position I was briefed—much to my surprise—that a preponderance of the serious injuries coming out of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan were not visible wounds," he says. These illnesses, he says, have much in common with other-brain based disorders, like dementia, Parkinson's disease, and CTE.

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"I came at this out of concern for the soldier," he says. "In reality, this is a huge, huge, huge public health problem for our country."

Why It's Innovative: The Gemini Program will study more than 1,000 people with acute head trauma and/or psychological trauma, gathering data on biomarkers (indicators of a problem in blood, for example), genetics, and other information on the effects of the disease and which treatments work and which don't. 

One Mind For Research will share what their research finds with the public in the hope of spurring on more research quickly. "There are so many diseases of the brain and so little money," explains Chiarelli. With the money currently available, "the only thing you're able to fund is what I call 'small science.' What Gemini is saying is we've got to bet on good small science and scale it up faster." Chiarelli is looking to private donors to "jumpstart this," he says.

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The Problem That Keeps Him Up at Night: "Trying to find that person who's going to allow us to jumpstart this."

How You Can Take Action: "We have to end the stigma. This is truly an injury. We know what a concussed brain looks like. It won't be too long before we can show post-traumatic stress. That will make all the difference in the world because now it will be real for people."

Another Great Mental Health Innovation: "Many, many people are working with blood biomarkers, which excites the heck out of me. What we need is the ability to take an instrument like a diabetes blood test and tell whether someone has had a concussion or not. We need blood biomarkers for PTS."

What do you think should be done to end the stigma associated with mental illnesses like PTS? Who else do you think is doing innovative work in mental illness?

Related Stories on TakePart:

• The Toll of War: Service Members With PTSD Get Help, but More is Needed

• Top Air Force General: Sexual Assault Numbers Are 'Appalling'

• A New Blood Test for Depression Proves It's Not All In Your Head

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