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Vets' brain damage from blasts not always apparent

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TUESDAY, March 4, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Even if they have no symptoms, military veterans exposed to blasts from bombs, grenades and other devices may still have brain damage, a new study finds.

Researchers divided 45 U.S. veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars into three groups: those who'd been exposed to blasts and had symptoms of traumatic brain injury; those who'd been exposed to blasts and had no symptoms of traumatic brain injury; and those with no blast exposure.

The participants underwent scans to look for damage in the brain's white matter, as well as tests to assess their mental abilities. Veterans who were exposed to blasts but had no symptoms had brain damage similar to those with symptoms of traumatic brain injury, the researchers found.

They said their findings, published March 3 in the Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation, suggest that a lack of symptoms after exposure to a blast may not indicate the extent of brain damage.

"Similar to sports injuries, people near an explosion assume that if they don't have clear symptoms -- losing consciousness, blurred vision, headaches -- they haven't had injury to the brain," study senior author Dr. Rajendra Morey, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C., said in a Duke news release

"Our findings are important because they're showing that even if you don't have symptoms, there may still be damage," Morey, a psychiatrist at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center, explained in the news release.

The results show that doctors treating veterans need to take into account a patient's exposure to blasts, even among those who have no symptoms of traumatic brain injury, the study authors said. They suggested that brain scans could help detect injury in patients with no symptoms.

A concussion is the mildest form of traumatic brain injury.

The researchers also noted that their findings are preliminary and need to be replicated in a larger study.

More information

The Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center has more about blast-related brain injuries.

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