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Untangling the Trauma: A veteran pursues a mechanical fix for combat-related brain injuries and PTSD.


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As a PhD candidate studying under Amit Etkin, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science, Toll is more than halfway through a five-year study of 1,500 veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The goal: to identify biomarkers in the brain—for example, a degree of electrical activity—that indicate the presence or severity of traumatic brain injuries,  post-traumatic stress disorder or depression and can help doctors to better diagnose and treat them. 

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates PTSD rates for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are between 10 percent and 18 percent. Over time, those rates could reach 35 percent, according to an analysis co-authored by Stanford management science professor Lawrence Wein, MS ’80, MS ’85, PhD ’88. The suicide rate among these veterans is estimated to be between 41 percent and 61 percent higher than that of the general U.S. population, according to findings published in the February 2015 Annals of Epidemiology. Toll says participants in his study have often tried other treatments without success. “PTSD can look like a guy with a Silver Heart for valor who now can barely function,” he says. 

Brains operate through a system of networks that work together like gears in the transmission of a car. One of these, the default mode network, guides us when we are sitting around, maybe daydreaming. When something captures our attention, the salience network engages; that’s the part of the brain that prepares us for action. In the case of PTSD, Toll explains, the salience network is a bully, and everything becomes important: the car backfiring, the person waving. 

I am happy to help my classmate and friend out with his research

Those PTSD rates are so high. I hope he can learn enough to help people. 

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