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

Babies can learn that hard work pays off

September 21, 2017
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. A new study from MIT reveals that babies as young as 15 months can learn to follow this advice. The researchers found that babies who watched an adult struggle at two different ...

Study links brain inflammation to suicidal thinking in depression

September 21, 2017
Patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) have increased brain levels of a marker of microglial activation, a sign of inflammation, according to a new study in Biological Psychiatry by researchers at the University of ...

Oxytocin turns up the volume of your social environment

September 20, 2017
Before you shop for the "cuddle" hormone oxytocin to relieve stress and enhance your social life, read this: a new study from the University of California, Davis, suggests that sometimes, blocking the action of oxytocin in ...

Researchers develop new tool to assess individual's level of wisdom

September 20, 2017
Researchers at University of San Diego School of Medicine have developed a new tool called the San Diego Wisdom Scale (SD-WISE) to assess an individual's level of wisdom, based upon a conceptualization of wisdom as a trait ...

Alcohol use affects levels of cholesterol regulator through epigenetics

September 20, 2017
In an analysis of the epigenomes of people and mice, researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine and the National Institutes of Health report that drinking alcohol may induce changes to a cholesterol-regulating gene.

Self-control may not diminish throughout the day

September 20, 2017
After a long day of work and carefully watching what you eat, you might expect your self-control to slip a little by kicking back and cracking open a bag of potato chips.

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.