"What we've gotten very good at is keeping soldiers alive, helping them survive combat. But they're coming back with very important invisible injuries," says William Milberg, associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki said in a statement that this discovery will hopefully "improve patient care and Veterans' quality of life."
That may be tough in the short term because, so far, CTE can be diagnosed only after death—it appears to be the reason Pro Bowl football players Dave Duerson and Junior Seau shot themselves in the chest, so their brains could be studied by researchers—and so far, the damage appears irreversible. Goldstein says that future studies will be focused on preventing blast damage and potentially reducing brain swelling in the immediate aftermath of a blast.
"If we understand the mechanism, we can start to intervene at every stage," he says.
Milberg and his colleague, Regina McGlinchey, say that the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs are increasingly studying brain damage, but many researchers—and injured soldiers—are in uncharted waters. Soldiers have undergone conditions that are psychological traumatic that athletes may have not, McGlinchey says.
"People are treating the PTSD aspects only or the [brain damage] aspects separately," she says. "But to look at it separately gives you an incomplete picture of what's happening. These blast exposures that are so common are both physically and psychologically traumatic."
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Clarification 5/16/12: This article has been updated to include Veterans Affairs office affiliations.