Study: Rest periods crucial to allow soldiers' brains to heal from trauma

September 4, 2012 by Charis Palmer
A new study of NATO troops returning from Afghanistan has found an ongoing impact from combat stress. Credit: AAP

Soldiers should be given regular periods of respite to recover from combat exposure, experts argue, following the findings of a Dutch study of NATO soldiers returning from deployment in Afghanistan.

The study of 33 soldiers, published in US journal PNAS, found exposure to combat , such as armed combat, enemy fire and improvised explosive device blasts, caused changes to the , impacting the soldiers' ability to remain focused during challenging tasks.

The soldiers were studied before and after a four-month long deployment, with 26 soldiers who were never deployed serving as a control group.

Guido van Wingen from Amsterdam's Brain Imaging Centre, and colleagues, studied tied to so-called executive functions, which rely on attention and for planning and decision-making.

"This study is of considerable importance and consistent with several other studies," said Sandy McFarlane, director of the Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies and Professor of Psychiatry at The University of Adelaide.

"It demonstrates that soldiers require regular periods of respite from combat exposure to let their neurophysiology reset itself."

The study found the brain changes were reversible upon follow-up 18 months later. However, changes to the functional connections between the midbrain and the persisted, suggesting combat stress may have long-lasting effects on cognitive .

"The fact that there is a lasting disruption of pre-frontal connectivity highlights that people do have a limit to how much traumatic stress they can endure," Professor McFarlane said.

The study did not include soldiers that had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The study clearly shows that combat exposure takes its toll even in soldiers without psychological problems," said Julie Krans, postdoctoral research fellow at University of New South Wales' School of Psychology.

"It would not be an unwise precaution to monitor Australian soldiers returning from deployment who were exposed to combat situations even if they do not present with psychological symptoms. They might be more vulnerable in future stress situations compared to never deployed ."

Dr Krans said given the relatively small sample size in the study the implications are very preliminary. "For example, the long-term effects on the brain may not be permanent but may need more time than 18 months to return to normal."

Explore further: How coming home changes a soldier's brain

Related Stories

How coming home changes a soldier's brain

August 31, 2011
Soldiers returning from combat have heightened activity in the part of the brain that regulates fear but this usually normalises after around 18 months, a study has found.

Letters from home may help prevent post-traumatic stress disorder in happily married soldiers

June 3, 2011
A new study from the Journal of Traumatic Stress finds that for active-duty male soldiers in the U.S. Army who are happily married, communicating frequently with one's spouse through letters and emails during deployment may ...

Recommended for you

Heart rate study tests emotional impact of Shakespeare

July 26, 2017
In a world where on-screen violence has become commonplace, Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company is turning to science to discover whether the playwright can still make our hearts race more than 400 years on.

Talking to yourself can help you control stressful emotions

July 26, 2017
The simple act of silently talking to yourself in the third person during stressful times may help you control emotions without any additional mental effort than what you would use for first-person self-talk – the way people ...

Risk for bipolar disorder associated with faster aging

July 26, 2017
New King's College London research suggests that people with a family history of bipolar disorder may 'age' more rapidly than those without a history of the disease.

Psychopaths are better at learning to lie, say researchers

July 25, 2017
Individuals with high levels of psychopathic traits are better at learning to lie than individuals who show few psychopathic traits, according to a study published in the open access journal Translational Psychiatry. The ...

Visual clues we use during walking and when we use them

July 25, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A trio of researchers with the University of Texas and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has discovered which phase of visual information processing during human walking is used most to guide the feet accurately. ...

Toddlers begin learning rules of reading, writing at very early age, study finds

July 25, 2017
Even the proudest of parents may struggle to find some semblance of meaning behind the seemingly random mish-mash of letters that often emerge from a toddler's first scribbled and scrawled attempts at putting words on paper.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.