Taking care of our veterans' brain health

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The president and top military officials are calling brain injury a signature issue of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. With new evidence continually surfacing to reveal a link between brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, the far-reaching impact of head trauma is undeniable. We are losing 22 former service members to suicide every day.

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A recent New York Times article describes the culture of resistance that dissuades service members from seeking help or even admitting that they may have a medical problem as a culture fueled by a fear of being "ostracized or penalized by commanders or peers."

Since 2000, more than 300,000 veterans have returned from service with a brain injury. The heroes most exposed to this type of injury are 18 to 24 years of age. From a neurobiological point of view, their brains are still developing. Scientifically speaking, their injury is considered a pediatric acquired brain injury (PABI), because the brain is still undergoing rapid development and refinement until age 25.

The long-term effects of a PABI can be very different, and much more detrimental, than in a fully developed adult brain. Cognitive deficits — including problems with learning, a decline in attention span, or even a change in personality — may not appear until later. Similarly, emotional problems such as anxiety and depression may take years to appear.

The nation has a timely opportunity to give those who have sacrificed for our country access to the best care possible for their brains through the National Pediatric Acquired Brain Injury Plan.

Patrick Donohue, founder of the Sarah Jane Brain Foundation, united the nation's top experts in brain injury to create the plan which has garnered the bipartisan support of more than 145 members of Congress. The PABI Plan spells out a plan to immediately provide, following funding, a "seamless, standardized, evidence-based system of care universally accessible for all children/young adults and their families" who have experienced a pediatric acquired brain injury.

Interventions that take advantage of the brain's immense resilience and regenerative properties would become available to those who need them across America, whether living in urban or rural areas. These resources would help newly injured individuals and those who sustained injury years ago. This long-term access to state-of-the-art interventions is particularly vital to overcome outdated treatment protocols, since until recently it was believed that the window for brain recovery was at most one year after injury. New research shows that in most cases cognitive performance can be regained and improved to significant degrees months, and even years, after injury.

Once the plan is signed by the president, it would set in motion a comprehensive education, healthcare, community reintegration and case-management network that has already been identified and recruited. The plan would bring online a National Virtual Center for families of those with brain injury and the professionals who work with them. Located at the Center for BrainHealth in Dallas, the Virtual Center would centralize records and help families find resources to facilitate the recovery process. It would advance best practices and research, improving scientific discovery and updating standards of care.

This bill is important not only for our national heroes, but also our youngest Americans. Every year more than 765,000 American youths under the age of 25 suffer a brain injury. That's 10 times the number of youth with HIV/AIDS and autism combined, and yet brain injury receives much less — only millions in federal research money — whereas HIV/AIDS alone receives billions.

In order for the National PABI Plan to become a reality, we need the president's approval. Congress has already authorized and appropriated enough funding across these various federal departments to implement it. Now we hope that President Obama will join the bipartisan group of more than 145 members of Congress who have co-sponsored legislation endorsing the PABI Plan so that we can help our next greatest generation and millions of young people and their families take charge of their brains and build brighter and more cognitively fulfilling futures.

Chapman, Ph.D., is the founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas.