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Veterans with brain injuries could get help

University of Pennsylvania scientists are trying to help restore healthy memory systems.

Scan of the human brain. Credit: Wiki Commons Scan of the human brain. Credit: Wiki Commons

During Jim Davie's second tour in Iraq, while engrossed in the first Battle of Fallujah in 2004, a rocket hit the building his unit was clearing. Two of his fellow Marines were killed, and Davie suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI).

"I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress disorder," said Davie, who three years ago started his construction company, JD Bravo Company.

He went through an intense in-patient, PTSD program at the Coatesville, Pennsylvania Veterans Affairs hospital.


"It was a lot of talking about the incidents, reliving them, bringing them back up, a lot of hypnosis-type stuff that at first I was not a fan of, I didn't believe in it," Davie said. "Since the therapy and medications, I really have made tremendous strides. But there are still lingering effects."

He said he knows other veterans who did not complete the program.

And for those who aren't as lucky and require a deeper treatment, help maybe on the way.

The ultimate goal is to help veterans who have experienced traumatic brain injuries overseas — to create a pacemaker-type device that can be inserted into the sufferer's brain and regulate damaged memory systems.

But before such a major medical advancement moves forward, an all-star team of scientists, mathematicians and memory experts need to gather information.

The University of Pennsylvania is leading a Pentagon-sanctioned study of treating memory deficiencies. The group hopes to figure out how a healthy memory system works and then develop a device that can treat memory issues, diseases associated with memories and effects of traumatic brain injuries.

UPenn Professor Michael J. Kahana, who has studied human memory for more than two decades, said the first step is a rhetorical question: "How do we help people with TBI? How do you help someone with Alzheimers?"

"Well, you can't go up to a patient with TBI and say, 'Hey, let's open up your skull and put in all of these electrodes,'" Kahana said. "So, the strategy is to say, 'Well, who's getting brain surgery anyway?'"

For research, the group will identify patients at seven hospitals across the country who have already had an electrode implanted in their brains as an experiment to treat such disorders as Epilepsy or Parkinson's Disease, among others. These electrodes are devices that apply electrical stimulation to parts of the brain as treatment.

The goal is to then to connect their laptops to the signal from the electrodes, and then ask the patient to play memory games.

"You can't do that with electrodes outside of the skull," Kahana said. "You have to go into the brain because you want to decode it."

Now he can find out whether their memory is working well or not by decoding these signals and figure out its code.

And then ask, "Can I manipulate it?"

The goal is to find whether a diet of electric shocks to the specific areas of the brain that coordinate with memory can be nudged into operating on the right path.

Kahana said for the next four years he only has one goal on his mind: "If there is anyway that this can lead to some type of a partial treatment for people who suffer from memory loss and hopefully PBI."

"And with the way that wars are fought these days," Davie added, "traumatic brain injuries aren't going to be something that goes away."

Follow Tommy Rowan on Twitter: @tommyrowan

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