Making Invisible Brain Wounds Visible

  • Medicine & Health
  • 2013

One of the commonest injuries of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, also a domestic concern thanks to auto and sports accidents, is brain injury. The resulting depression, irritability, and stress disorders can be almost impossible to document and measure, and thus hard to treat. A $17 million donation to New York University by financier Steven Cohen and his wife, Alexandra, aims to find out if brain injuries and mental health conditions can be assessed more concretely.

In a five-year study of 1,500 military veterans, NYU psychiatrist Charles Marmar and his lab will see if they can establish characteristic biomarkers of mental disruption. Hormone levels, blood chemistry, brain images, genetic clues, even voice patterns, will be assessed to see if any of these reliably signal disability or illness after a concussion. Just as certain blood proteins and brain shrinkages are now known to indicate Alzheimer's, the hope is that physical indicators can be established for syndromes like PTSD. That should improve diagnosis and treatment. “We want to elevate mental health to standard physical health,” says Marmar.

Marmar told the audience at a 2014 Philanthropy Roundtable gathering that the speed, flexibility, and non-bureaucratic nature of private donations were crucial to getting his project off the ground. “I’ve been a National Institutes of Health researcher for decades, and to get an NIH grant from the government you essentially have to already have solved the problem in question.” His business-experienced donors, however, were comfortable in undertaking highly speculative investigations, recognizing that huge benefits could result if the experiment succeeds.