Resources for Recovering Resilience: Paradigm Shifts Happen – Modern Warfare Destroys the Brain

The New York Times published this article, What if PTSD is More Physical Than Psychological? By Robert F. Worth in its June 10, 2016 New York Times Magazine. The article runs 14 online pages; please read the entire article from the link; it’s provocative and powerful.

The gist is: In early 2012, Daniel Perl, a neuropathologist who had examined 20,000 brains over a four-decade career searching for the keys to Alzheimer’s disease, noticed a distinctive patterns of tiny scars in the brain of an American soldier who had survived an I.E.D. explosion but died two years later of an apparent drug overdose after suffering symptoms that have become the hallmark of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: memory loss, cognitive problems, inability to sleep and profound, often suicidal depression.

For many years, many scientists had assumed that explosive blasts affect the brain in much the same way as concussions from football or car accidents. (Perl himself was a leading researcher on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. which causes dementia in N.F.L. players.) (The discovery of C.T.E. so well-documented in the 2014 film Concussion).

But what Perl was discovering now was a pattern of tiny scars different than anything he had ever seen before, and he knew as much about the biology of brain disease as anyone on earth. The article describes his discoveries in full; the paradigm shift is that the impact of blast explosions may be causing traumatic brain injury in nearly 350,000 American servicemen who exhibit symptoms of memory loss, cognitive problems, inability to sleep and profound, often suicidal depression. (The U.S. Dept. of Veteran Affairs reports that 22 servicemen commit suicide every day; more than die in combat, and that number may be under-reporting actual deaths.)

A further paradigm shift is that brain injury may very well account for the “shell shock” soldiers experienced in World War I, the “combat fatigue” of World War II, and the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder of the Vietnam War.

“The crude message that lurks, unavoidable, behind Perl’s discovery: Modern warfare destroys your brain….The implications for the military and for society at large could be vast. Much of what has passed for emotional trauma may be reinterpreted, and many veterans may step forward to demand recognition of an injury that cannot be definitively diagnosed until after death.”

I traveled recently. On the flight over I re-watched the film Concussion, on the return flight I re-watched the film Spotlight. Both films about the power of investigation – scientific inquiry into the premature deaths of NFL football players; journalistic investigation into the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests – to wake us up and to shake up our beliefs about the damage that can be caused by powerful, tradition bound institutions that we have come to deeply trust and have benefited by.

The key point in both films was the power of choice when we have information, knowledge, awareness. The discoveries of Dr. Perl and others cited in the article let us now that even small explosions with no discernible effects could, if repeated, produce terrible and irreversible damage. These discoveries are beginning to shift how the military protects soldiers from explosions, screens them for brain injury after an explosion, and treats the symptoms of brain injury when they return home.

The resilience angle for me is how long it can take us, in our regular, everyday lives, to let in new information that might upset the entire applecart, the entire family, our entire world view – that dad is an alcoholic or our beloved is having an affair or our child is having developmental delays. It’s not easy being a human being; it’s not easy facing difficulties day after day or facing the long-range implications of those difficulties. May the many tools offered through these posts help you in your own commitment to learn, investigate, wake up to and make choices about the “truths” that you live by, discern options and take wise action, again and again as we need to.