Veterans to use UT brain scanner for invisible brain trauma

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The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is using a brain scanner at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin in a $4.2 million program to study and treat hard-to-detect brain injuries sustained by veterans.

The study will use UT’s $2.7 million scanner, which combines several brain scanning technologies and has twice the power of a standard MRI, at the Imaging Research Center at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus, according to The Daily Texan.

Robert Van Boven, MD, director of the VA’s program, said that many veterans are suffering from brain trauma too subtle to be detected by standard medical techniques. The similarity of brain injury symptoms to those of post-traumatic stress disorder can lead to misdiagnosis, ineffective treatment and ruined lives, Van Boven said.

"We hope we can better characterize and improve sensitivity to detect so-called 'invisible brain injury,'" he said. Van Boven and his team believe that the new scanner can help diagnose these invisible brain traumas and work toward effective treatment.

The scanner uses functional MRI (fMRI) technology, which allows researchers to track brain activity in real time, in conjunction with technologies that track neurochemicals and water movement within the brain. Michael Domjan, director of the imaging center, said the combination of these techniques allows for detailed study of the inner workings of the brain.

Van Boven said one type of scan takes snapshots of the brain during various activities, such as a question-and-answer session intended to test memory. The snapshots are used to compare how various areas of the brain are working at different times. Another type of scan focuses on particular stretches of the microscopic highways that connect various portions of the brain and allow them to communicate. A disruption in those highways can manifest in symptoms such as inability to move a limb or to reason through complex problems. A third type of scan will analyze the chemicals in a disrupted stretch of that highway to determine what, exactly, is wrong.

The combination of techniques is more precise than most brain scans, Van Boven said, and far more reliable than the standard method of making a diagnosis mostly or entirely on symptoms (which include emotional instability, inability to concentrate and balance problems). The symptoms can easily be confused or intermingled with those of post traumatic stress disorder, depression and sleep disorders, all of which require different treatment.

"This is a very powerful new technology for studying human brain function and studying processes in other physiological systems," Domjan said.

Van Boven said they hope to begin studying patients as early as next month.