VA Secretary Calls for More Research into Traumatic Brain Injury

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Representatives from the public and private sectors and nonprofits convened for a two-day summit in Washington, D.C., to come up with new ideas for treating people with traumatic brain injuries.

The event, which began Monday, was organized by the Veterans Affairs Department, which is hoping to harness the collective expertise from various agencies and foundations to build on advances that VA already has made.

“We need your expertise and your experience. We need you tell us what resources you need for VA to be nationally and internationally acknowledged as the leader in TBI research, diagnoses and treatment,” VA Secretary Bob McDonald said.

The event has brought together representatives various VA regional medical centers, as well as from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Football League, The Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital, and non-profit organizations working to improve treatments for TBI.

Over the past half-dozen years or so, the department has pumped additional funds and manpower into TBI research. In 2008, it convened an international conference on the injury.

Three years ago, VA researches found a link between TBI and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that develops from repetitive mild traumatic brain injury. Researchers at the department’s Mid-Atlantic Mental Illness Research and Education Clinic Center in Durham, North Carolina, and Duke University found that many veterans may have TBI even if they don’t show symptoms.

Other researchers have found that TBI patients have a slightly increased rate of stroke.

The department has a study underway to determine if the injury puts veterans at greater risk of Alzheimer’s in later years. Researchers already have found that older veterans with a TBI have a 60 percent greater risk of developing dementia over a nine-year period than older veterans without the injury.

In addition to finding new treatments for TBI, it’s important to have ways to accurately predict the long-term effects of the injury to make sure the resources are available when needed, McDonald said.

“We don’t need a 100-percent solution but we do need the best estimates … and all of you know all too well that some veterans will require care for the rest of their lives,” he said.

McDonald said that at least some of the health care delivery problems the VA has experienced in recent years have to do with its failure to predict future needs or to push harder for the funding to meet demands it knew were coming.

“We believe that VA too often in the past has worked to a budget rather than … the requirements, and what we need to do as leaders of the organization is to figure out what those requirements are, share those requirements with Congress … which passes the budget that allows us to give that care,” he said.

“And we need to make those two [things] match,” McDonald said. “I don’t think we’ve done a terribly good job of that in the past, but we’re working to get better.”

–Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com.