Fifty Service Members Have Experienced Traumatic Brain Injury

amnesia, impaired sensory input among risks of traumatic brain injury

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A January missile attack on an Iraqi base caused 50 U.S. troops to suffer from brain injuries, The New York Post reported. The attack came as Iran’s retaliation for the death of General Qassem Soleimani on January 3. As a review of medical literature provides substantive information about brain injury, doctors and scientists continue their work to understand brain damage.

Doctor observing MRI scan of brain
Symptoms of traumatic brain injury can manifest days or weeks after the onset of injury. Photo by Shidlovski / Shutterstock

According to the Post article, “Traumatic brain injury has become a larger concern for the military in recent years. It can impair thinking, memory, vision, hearing, and other abilities. Severe cases can result in coma, amnesia, or death.” Some of the symptoms vary based on the area and strength of impact on the brain. Since the air strike, 31 of the injured troops have returned to duty while 18 service members were sent to Germany “for further evaluation and treatment,” the article said.

Human brains are for more advanced and complex than those of animals, and so treating head trauma in humans can likewise be more complicated and far more difficult to understand. However, science and medicine have come a long way, especially in amnesia studies.

Retrograde Amnesia

There are several kinds of amnesia, one of which is retrograde amnesia. Retrograde amnesia involves the inability to retrieve memories made prior to a certain traumatic event. While often the subject of movies, in real life, it’s far more involved.

“From imaging studies we know that the frontal lobes play an important role in terms of the initiation of action,” said Dr. Steve Joordens, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough. “[The patient’s] frontal lobe damage likely prevents him from initiating retrieval processes. If you never start a retrieval process, you can never ultimately experience a memory, even if the memory is there.”

Less serious occurrences of retrograde amnesia happen more often, Dr. Joordens said, but they tend to be short-lived and require less treatment.

“Typically, when somebody suffers a concussion, there’s a swelling of the brain, and that includes a swelling of the frontal lobes,” he said. “In those cases, it’s quite common that people who suffer from these concussions will initially have little memory of themselves, but then slowly they regain their memories, beginning with those further in the past and eventually recovering memories up to the last bit of time just prior to the concussion.”

He said that some patients never recover memories made several hours prior to the accident, but otherwise they turn out just fine.

Anterograde Amnesia

If retrograde amnesia refers to the brain’s inability to recall memories prior to a trauma, what about the other side of that coin? When a patient is unable to form new memories after some kind of incident, it’s known as anterograde amnesia.

“[A patient’s] anterograde amnesia is most certainly linked to the damage in his hippocampus,” Dr. Joordens said. “We know that the hippocampus is critical as relevant to the transfer of information from working memory to long-term memory, both at the time of encoding and afterwards at the time of consolidation.”

With regards to one landmark patient suffering from anterograde amnesia, Dr. Joordens offered a very telling example.

“If you met him, you could have a perfectly good conversation with him as long as it wasn’t about recent events, but the moment you left the room and the moment he thought about something other than you, you would be completely forgotten,” he said. “If you walked back into the room, [he] would insist that he had no memory of ever meeting you before. So clearly, a functioning hippocampus is critical to the formation of episodic memories, and it’s important to highlight that while the formation of episodic memories is impaired, many other memory systems are clearly intact.”

The medical details of the troops suffering from traumatic brain injuries are still unknown, and may always be. However, we can hope for their successful treatment and recovery while working with medical experts specializing in head traumas such as amnesia.

Dr. Steve Joordens contributed to this article. Dr. Joordens is Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, where he has taught since 1995. He earned a doctorate in cognitive psychology from the University of Waterloo.