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Research on BLAST exposure in active-duty United States Special Operations Forces

Apr 22, 2024

CNTR researchers find that repeated exposure to blasts in training and combat is related to brain injury in active duty US Special Operations Forces

CNTR faculty, including CNTR Associate Director Dr. Brian Edlow, recently published a study assessing the impact of BLAST exposure on US active duty members. The study identified a relationship between high blast exposure and increased cortical thickness in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region that modulates cognition and emotion. Read more about the study here.


United States (US) Special Operations Forces (SOF) are frequently exposed to explosive blasts in training and combat, but the effects of repeated blast exposure (RBE) on SOF brain health are incompletely understood. Furthermore, there is no diagnostic test to detect brain injury from RBE. As a result, SOF personnel may experience cognitive, physical, and psychological symptoms for which the cause is never identified, and they may return to training or combat during a period of brain vulnerability. In 30 active-duty US SOF, we assessed the relationship between cumulative blast exposure and cognitive performance, psychological health, physical symptoms, blood proteomics, and neuroimaging measures (Connectome structural and diffusion MRI, 7 Tesla functional MRI, [11C]PBR28 translocator protein [TSPO] positron emission tomography [PET]-MRI, and [18F]MK6240 tau PET-MRI), adjusting for age, combat exposure, and blunt head trauma. Higher blast exposure was associated with increased cortical thickness in the left rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC), a finding that remained significant after multiple comparison correction. In uncorrected analyses, higher blast exposure was associated with worse health-related quality of life, decreased functional connectivity in the executive control network, decreased TSPO signal in the right rACC, and increased cortical thickness in the right rACC, right insula, and right medial orbitofrontal cortex—nodes of the executive control, salience, and default mode networks. These observations suggest that the rACC may be susceptible to blast overpressure and that a multimodal, network-based diagnostic approach has the potential to detect brain injury associated with RBE in active-duty SOF.

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