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Combat Stress Linked to Brain Changes in Study

By Steven Reinberg
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Sept. 4 (HealthDay News) -- Exposure to combat stress can have subtle, long-lasting effects on brain wiring, although most war-related brain changes clear up with time, a small Dutch study found.

Researchers evaluating 33 healthy soldiers just back from deployment in Afghanistan found that problems with concentration during complex thinking tasks were common early on, but eventually improved.

But, subtle changes involving brain circuitry appeared longer-lasting.

"Almost a quarter of soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan experience some difficulty in social and operational functioning," said lead researcher Guido van Wingen, from the Brain Imaging Center at the University of Amsterdam.

"What we wanted to know is how that could be related to brain function," he said.

For the study, published online Sept. 3 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, van Wingen's team looked at members of the NATO International Security Assistance Force peacekeeping operation, before and six weeks after a four-month deployment in Afghanistan.

The investigators compared these soldiers with 26 soldiers who were never deployed. A year and a half later, they followed up.

Using neuropsychological tests and functional MRI, the researchers did identify changes in brain function, specifically in the midbrain, van Wingen said.

The prolonged stress of armed combat, enemy fire and explosions initially interfered with the ability to concentrate during complicated tasks, but after 18 months the ability to sustain attention returned, the study found.

"The brain rapidly adapted to the situation in Afghanistan, but changes back when it returns to a safe environment," van Wingen said. "This shows how plastic the brain is and that's reassuring to know."

However, changes to the connections between the midbrain and the prefrontal co

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