Kevin Kit Parker was deployed as a scientist as well as a soldier, helping the Center for Army Lessons Learned figure out how to protect troops from IEDs. Parker's doctoral thesis had looked at a potentially lethal injury known as cardiac concussion.
Parker had investigated how this sort of blow — a brief mechanical force — could affect the behavior of heart cells. And his research had led him to proteins called integrins, which connect the outermost layers of a cell to the structures inside. The shock wave from a blast can cause the integrin to send unhealthy and sometimes fatal signals to the structures inside cells.
How A Blast Wave Affects The Brain
Dr. Christian Macedonia and many other military doctors actually became suspicious of service members who suggested blast exposure was the cause of their headaches, performance, fatigue or sleep problems. "The attitude was that these people were trying to get a Purple Heart or something like that," he says. "In retrospect, it was just awful. It was really a bad thing to do to people."
Macedonia's conversion occurred one day in Iraq, when he got caught in a mortar attack.
"I was out with a young Marine. We were in the middle of the attack. And the mortar was probably about 50 meters away," he says.
The blast wave shook them violently. But they were alive. And they weren't bleeding. So Macedonia went back to the hospital. He did surgery until midnight. Then, he headed for bed.
I had a shaving mirror hung up by my cot and I looked in that mirror and I didn't recognize the person looking back at me," he says. Macedonia realized that he couldn't remember anything from the operating room that night.
And he recognized the vacant expression he saw in the mirror: "The same sort of strange look in the eye that I had seen in people who had been in IED blasts up and down the route near our base."
Macedonia was pretty sure he wasn't having a purely psychological reaction to combat. The blast had injured his brain (1).
(3)Source: Harvard University Credit: Katherine Du/NPR
Treatment for Traumatic Brain Injury in U.S.
"A treatment that works on blast-induced TBI would be likely to help people with brain injuries caused by a car wreck, or a fall, or a collision on a football field. And, if given soon enough after the injury, it would treat the problem in a way that no currently available drug can.
But the pharmaceutical industry has lost billions of dollars trying to develop drugs for other brain diseases, especially Alzheimer's. And the companies evidently weren't ready to take on the costly search for a drug that might help people with traumatic brain injury. "I was surprised," Parker says. "No one wanted to get in the fight." (6)