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War Trauma May Cause Cognitive Problems

War Trauma May Cause Cognitive ProblemsA new report suggests brain changes can linger for up to a year after an individual returns from deployment in a war zone.

In the current investigation, investigators discovered soldiers returning from Iraq with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder also had attention disorders. Furthermore, intense combat experiences were associated with faster reaction times regardless of how recently a soldier was deployed.

The findings support previous research that suggested as soldiers face prolonged stressful and life-threatening situations, changes in their brains direct their cognitive (thinking, learning and memory) resources toward survival.

For instance, they may respond to dangerous events more quickly while losing the ability to pay attention, learn and remember events not related to combat.

“However, it remains unknown whether deployment-related neuropsychological changes persist over time, are associated with stress-related factors (e.g., combat intensity, post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] symptoms and depressive reactions) or are better accounted for by demographic and contextual variables,” the authors write.

In the report, found in the September issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, Brian P. Marx, Ph.D., of Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System and Boston University School of Medicine, and colleagues studied 268 male and female regular active-duty soldiers who served between 2003 and 2006.

All the soldiers were given neuropsychological tests measuring response time, attention and memory before and after deployment. A group of 164 was assessed both immediately and one year following their return, whereas a second group of 104 returned more recently and were assessed before deployment and then a median (midpoint) of 122 days after returning.

The assessments also documented demographic and military information, risk factors for neuropsychological disorders and combat intensity and emotional distress.

“Greater PTSD symptoms were associated with poorer attention in soldiers tested at one-year follow-up but not in recently returned soldiers,” the authors write. “Greater combat intensity was associated with enhanced reaction time, irrespective of time since return.”

Neither depression nor risk-related variables such as alcohol use and head injury were associated with changes in neuropsychological functioning.

“Recent findings reveal notably high rates of poor mental health outcomes among U.S. service members upon return from Iraq deployment,” the authors write.

“Our findings additionally highlight the neuropsychological consequences of chronic PTSD symptoms. Although neuropsychological changes were not profound and, for reaction time, can be construed as desirable in the short term, their significance lies in the demonstration that psychiatric symptoms often reflect more extensive biological changes, including those affecting brain functioning.”

“A growing literature demonstrates the significant impact of prolonged and repetitive stress on health factors (e.g., immune functioning, cardiovascular disease and other systemic medical illnesses) that can be traced to the biological stress response. Thus, subtle cognitive changes (positive or negative) associated with combat exposure or PTSD may represent a warning sign relevant to long-term health.”

Source: JAMA and Archives Journals

War Trauma May Cause Cognitive Problems

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). War Trauma May Cause Cognitive Problems. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 20, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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