Memory deficits found in veterans exposed to close proximity blasts

While finding the results of the experiment unsurprising, Surowitz said he would like to see a similar study done where the assessments are calibrated to non-injured subjects who are more representative of the veterans in each group. (Jon Sammis/The Daily Campus)

A recent study by the Boston VA Healthcare System suggests that veterans who experienced a blast from a close distance perform worse on memory and recall tests.

The veterans tested were split into two groups based on their proximity to a blast. On average, the close-proximity group subjects performed worse on neuropsychological assessments than those of the farther-proximity group.

The study states close-range blast proximity may also affect long term brain function.

According to the lead author of the study, Dr. Laura J. Grande, the results should be a concerning factor when assessing minds of returning veterans without observable physical injuries.

Dr. Carl Coelho, a University of Connecticut professor of speech, language and hearing sciences, is currently working with Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on two studies involving Vietnam veterans with traumatic brain injuries (TBI).

Coelho explained that during an incident like blast exposure, the heat and pressure waves coming from the explosion impact the soft tissues of the brain.

“[The brain contains] grey matter, which is all the brain cell bodies, and coming off each of these is white matter, which are axons that connect one brain cell from another,” Coelho said. “Typically in TBI, the grey matter remains in tact and what gets disrupted are the nerve pathways.”

In a properly functioning brain, signals from the neurons are able to reach different parts of the brain where they are interpreted. In a patient with TBI, the signals are no longer understood, resulting in the loss of certain abilities such as memory and recall, Coelho said.

“The biggest misnomer is that a mild TBI is inconsequential,” Coelho says, “There’s no such thing as a mild brain injury… and it can have significant effects on learning.”

Samuel Surowitz, a UConn graduate student and army veteran, was deployed to Afghanistan with his unit, the 4th Psychological Operations Group (4POG), and the ranger regiment with whom they were attached.

The unit would engage in helicopter infiltrations to rural areas in order to arrest Taliban-associated individuals and confiscate IEDs and other weapons, Surowitz said.

Surowitz said that on one particular raid, he followed his unit across a small footbridge when one man stepped aside to a place none of the previous men had walked over yet, resulting in the detonation of a small pressure-based IED.

“I was less than five meters from the blast… and just got hit by dust and debris,” Surowitz said.

Surowitz said he was diagnosed with a mild concussion and continued on his missions within a few days of the blast.

“I consider myself very lucky,” Surowitz said. “There are a lot of other people that had things that were a lot worse...much worse situations than I was in and much more frequently… and were more heroic in those situations.”

While finding the results of the experiment unsurprising, Surowitz said he would like to see a similar study done where the assessments are calibrated to non-injured subjects who are more representative of the veterans in each group.

“A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, VBIED, would be much more severe at a much further distance,” Surowitz said. “If they can measure the average amount of explosive in each type of IED... then they can determine a range that is close and far for each type.”

Surowitz said he believes these experiments to be incredibly important and is hopeful they will further the study on the impact of blast injuries scientifically and psychologically.

The difficulty of studying TBI is inherent in each brain’s uniqueness, Coelho said. Each brain injury is specific to that individual and is impossible to recreate, which makes identifying subgroups a difficult but important aspect of a study.

“It is a good study, it is one of many going on right now,” Coelho said. “It is another small step to getting where people want to get. Various large cities, including Boston, Tampa and West Haven, are currently conducting studies with PTSD and TBI inflicted patients to try and better understand how these disorders affect their lives.”


Jillian Fernandes is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at Jillian.fernandes@uconn.edu.