November 11th – Veterans Day

November 11 is a day to celebrate and honor the millions of Americans, of all races and genders, who served this country with honor as veterans of the US military – today is Veterans Day!  It is time to recognize the veterans who are living with the “signature wound” of more recent wars: traumatic brain injury and often the co-occurring post-traumatic stress disorder.  These men and women fight on the battlefield for the citizens of the United States and now fight for their health and/or equality back at home.  (Visit the articles links or click the Government/Military link on the right side of this page to find more information about veterans and TBI.)

Originally published: November 11, 2017

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New Research Center Focuses on Care to Givers

Caregivers and family members play a critical role in the “health and well-being” of traumatic brain injury survivors.  However, this medical and personal care of another can result in an additional toll, specifically on the health and well-being of the caregivers.  Last year, for example, the NIH published a report that concluded, “There is a definitive existence of psychological problems in overburdened caregivers.”  This understanding is why, last month, the VA established a new Center of Excellence focused on caregivers.  “Advocates say [that this Center] could significantly boost research and support for families caring for ailing veterans.”  There are an estimated 5.5 million veteran caregivers in the United States and an unknown millions of other citizen caregivers.

In actuality, this Center is located at four VA sites – Texas, Florida, Utah, California.  Steve Schwab, the Executive Director of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, whose mission is to “strengthen and empower America’s military caregivers and their families by raising public awareness, driving research, championing policy, and leading collaborations that make a significant impact on their lives,” has high hopes and believes, “This Center is going to own the research in this area and a lot of areas that are still undiscovered.”

Link: Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center

In the early 1990s, during the Gulf War, advances in weaponry and medical knowledge meant that injury, not death, was of foremost concern – included in this was brain injury, caused by both physical or chemical injury.  In response, in 1992, Congress created the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC) – an organization headquartered in Silver Springs, Maryland with 22 other locations around the continental United States of America.  According to their mission, “the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center promotes state-of-the-science care from point-of-injury to reintegration for service members, veterans, and their families to prevent and mitigate consequences of mild to severe TBI.”  Throughout its 26 years, their “science care” has extensively investigated, through research and sponsorship, what has been termed the signature wound of modern war.  In response to this, in 2007, “DVBIC [was] designated the primary operational TBI component of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE).”

(As of today, there will be a link to the DVBIC in the ADDITIONAL RESOURCES bar on the Home Page of this site.)

New Technology, Same Problems

Last year, I reported on the secondary danger that can arise from using the shoulder-launched heavy artillery Carl Gustaf.  Carl Gustaf has a twin though – heavy artillery known as SMAW…  and, just like with Carl Gustaf, SMAW is strong enough both to blow up a tank and to cause severe brain injury to the shooter in the process.

Late last month, NPR reported on the effects the use of SMAW had on two former soldiers.  After every shot, you felt a “concussive wave”, one soldier said, before continuing to say “it’s an awesome thing”.  Based on this description, as well as these soldiers’ ongoing support for the military, one can see that “blaming” an institution that they love so much for their current deficits is a difficult thing for these soldiers.  For the same reason, many other soldiers find themselves in a conundrum when it comes to their opinion of the military.  (Statistics show, for example, that though enrollment in the military is at a low, retention is up.)  However, it seems that the military recognizes that, in some way, they, specifically their weaponry, are at fault for some injuries, as they keep putting more money into research (e.g. with animal models).  They also have set up a TBI Recovery Support Program and, as a member of that Program states, “If you talk to us in a year… I think we’re going to have exponential growth in our knowledge.”

However, is some of this concern over brain injury just unnecessary worry?  The soldiers NPR quotes in their article ask that question.  (This is very similar to the responses of some players, coaches and parents regarding brain injury in football.)

(Another interesting subject in the above-linked NPR article is the difficulty soldiers, who acquire a brain injury while not in combat, have in getting healthcare coverage for their recovery.)

Virginia Battles BI with Targeted Funds

Being home to the Pentagon, headquarters of the Department of Defense, Virginia has been the center of much brain injury research and treatment.  Having a background in pediatric neurology and a past residency at the Brooke Army Medical Center, a military hospital located in Texas, Governor of Virginia Dr. Ralph Northam has seen the short-term and long-term effects of brain injury.  Given this, Gov. Northam authored a proclamation for Brain Injury Awareness Month in March, stating, “WHEREAS, early, equal, and adequate access to care greatly increases the overall quality of life of Virginians with TBI, enabling them to return to home, school, work, and community.”

From 2014 to the present, “Virginia has received $3,573,485 in Federal TBI Planning, Implementation, and Implementation Partnership Grants. The State has provided $1,785,260 in matching support.”  However, this federal grant is set to expire after 2018.  Last week, Northam awarded a three-year $900,000 grant to the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS), earmarked for Brain Injury Services Coordination (BISC) Unit.  (Notes DARS Commissioner Kathryn A. Hayfield, this new grant is just another example of Virginia’s support for brain injury services, which has been ongoing since the 1980s.)  As it is, the goal of BISCU is to, “enhance the quality of life and vocational goals of persons with… brain injury.”  The goal of this grant is to go further than this, as the agency continues to enhance the “health, wellness and independence of people with TBI,” by enhancing “access to supports and services,” states Dr. Daniel Carey, Secretary of Health and Human Resources.

Alexa and Her Friends Promote Independence

The new technology of smart homes has sparked the interest of all Americans, as they imagine Alexa and other such tools closing the blinds, turning off the stove and other such activities at a specific time.  For those with a brain injury and/or other disabilities, the possibilities are even greater, allowing them to, “independently plan, organize and complete everyday activities.”

Nearly a decade ago, in 2009, the government saw the potential of smart homes for the disabled, when it concluded, “more outcomes-based research and collaboration among stakeholders is essential in order to establish guidance for designing, selecting and implementing individualized smart home solutions for those with neurological disability.”  To identify both the needs of those with brain injuries, as well as their caregivers and their rehabilitation and home healthcare providers in smart homes, the government conducted such studies, as that in 2016.  To condense the findings of this study, it found that “to meet participation needs of people with ABI, the design of smart homes must consider all categories of daily and social activities.”  More so, the VA found that smart homes actually aid in cognitive rehabilitation, as VA smart homes send technological reminders when someone goes “off track”.  The VA has stated smart homes have been described as a ‘cognitive prosthetic‘, telling someone when to take their medication and even such things as notifying someone how long they have been shaving.

Last month, the Gary Sinise Foundation, an organization whose mission is to “serve our nation by honoring our defenders, veterans, first responders, their families, and those in need,” built a smart home in Wildwood, Missouri for a veteran who lost both his legs and suffered a brain injury after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan.  This month, the Gary Sinise Foundation gave a smart home that they built in Richland County, Ohio to a former Army Sergeant who also suffered a traumatic brain injury and leg injuries while serving in Afghanistan.  As smart homes become more available, for both individual residence and community living, further independence can be known to many more with brain injuries.

Hit by Dementia on the Battlefield

Last year, I reported on the correlation between traumatic brain injury and dementia.  Specifically, I linked to a study that found that those with a TBI had a 4.5 percent greater risk of dementia (in some studies, this percentage is a bit lower).  While terrible, that was not a complete surprise, when one is referring to moderate and severe brain injuries.  (The report that found that mild TBI is not so mild for the elderly is upsetting, but not unbelievable.)  However, since that time, government-funded studies, as well as other studies, have broadened that research and discovered that even a mild brain injury without loss of consciousness (loc) can more than double one’s chance of developing dementia, no matter what age that person is when that mTBI occurs.  A study of more than 350,000 veterans found that those who had a mild TBI, a single jolt to the head, without loc had a 2.36 percent greater risk of developing dementia.  For those in the study who had a mild TBI with loc, there was a 2.51 percent higher risk of developing dementia, not that much higher.

“One working theory is that somehow these injuries either cause an overproduction of normal waste proteins, or make it impossible to clear these proteins,” notes the study.  However, this is just a working theory because no one fully understands how the brain works, or rather why and how it stops working.  Responding to the above studies results, the director of the Army’s traumatic brain injury program questioned, “”Is blast exposure hurting service members or soldiers?  And if it is… how can we modify our equipment or the way we operate to prevent injury?”

Beyond the military, why is the risk of dementia higher after a TBI for working age adults, in general?  Additionally, the NCBI sponsored a nationwide study that found that, “the risk of dementia diagnosis decreased over time after TBI… [but] it was still evident >30 years after the trauma.”  Based on this information, how can we modify our diet, our physical activity, etc., during our TBI recovery and after, to prevent this?  As of now, research on cognitive decline, mild cognitive impairment, and dementia prevention has been “encouraging but inconclusive”.  However, the assumed prevention tactics of cognitive training, blood pressure management (for those with hypertension), and increased physical activity are beneficial regardless.

Trump Gives Credit to Caregivers

Trump donates his presidential paycheck to VA caregivers,” read the headline on The Military Times website yesterday, May 17, 2018.   Specifically, the President’s quarterly paycheck of $100,000 is the first check that the President has donated to the VA (earmarked for the caregivers) and the fifth paycheck that he has donated to various governmental departments.  “President Trump understands the critical role of caregivers,” said Acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie of this quarter’s donation. Apart from financial support, caregivers support the health and healthcare of dependents and provide much needed social interaction.

Earlier this year, the “Trump tax cut”, H.R. 1, that passed in March, states that, “The [tax] credit [for caregivers]… shall be increased by $500 for each dependent of the taxpayer.”  A dependent is a relative who lives with the caregiver, earns less than $4,050 annually and that the caregiver financially supports.  This is a description that applies to many brain-injured individuals.

AVs: Salvation or Hazard

Getting an extra 30 minutes of sleep while you’re on the road… finishing yesterday’s homework while you’re on your way to your senior year of high school… caring for your baby while you’re breezing through the highway.  All of these scenarios seemed too good to be true a few years ago, but now America is on the cusp of the age of autonomous vehicles (AVs).  As it is, in 2016, 87.5 percent of people ages 16+ had their driver’s license and spent, on average, a total of 17,600 minutes on the road a year.  The idea of a car that could do the tedious and time-consuming duties of driving is a dream that is quickly becoming a reality.

For the disabled, the benefits of autonomous cars are even greater – if nothing else, it allows for increased independence.  It means the legally blind, for example, will finally be able to safely operate a car by themselves.  A 2012 video of a legally blind man stopping at the Taco Bell drive-thru prompted much positive excitement.  The means with which to allow the blind to safely drive is still in actuality in development, but spokesmen do say, “At Waymo, Google’s self-driving car company that was launched nearly a decade ago, officials say visually impaired employees contribute to design and research. While no specific system for blind riders has been completed, the company says it’s developing a mobile app, Braille labels and audio cues.”  As Americans gets older, a self-driving car could help those who have a, “loss [of] flexibility, vision and hearing,” and delayed reaction time.  Of course, these are some of the same impairments suffered by those with brain injuries.

However, this may seem too good to be true because it is just that.  Car fatalities have been on an almost steady decline, from a high of more than 50,000 in the 1970s to the low to medium 30,000s this decade.  (“An additional 2.35 million are injured or disabled.”)  Though this is still an extremely high number, how will fully autonomous or semi-autonomous cars affect this?  Beyond testing, no one knows if or by how much this will decrease with the use of self-driving cars.

Cars don’t have the same “sense” that people do.  Only a month ago, on March 20, 2018, in Arizona, a homeless woman became the first pedestrian fatality to be attributed to this new technology. “If there is any real-world scenario where it would be seemingly safe to operate in an automated mode, this should have been it. Something went seriously wrong,” said an urban planning professor after the incident.  (The car that caused the fatality was a self-driving Uber.  Uber has since suspended it’s self-driving car tests.)  In Mountain View, CA, headquarters to self-driving car company Waymo, Walter Huang was killed after the sun glare got into his eyes when his Tesla noted that it needed him to take the wheel, resulting in his vehicle driving straight into a highway median.  Two years ago, in Florida, a man was killed when he failed to take the wheel after numerous notifications from a self-driving car.  (The National Transportation Safety Board released a report of findings about the incident.)

In a horrifying test, reported by Psychology Today this month, “some recent demonstrations have shown that a few black stickers on a stop sign can fool the algorithm into thinking that the stop sign is a 60 mph sign.”  As far as accidents go, in Pittsburgh, PA in late February, a “Woman claim[ed a] self-driving Uber struck her car, left the scene.”  Did that driver choose not to stop or did the car leave on its own?

The above are just a few examples of accidents or possible accidents resulting from problems with autonomous cars.  (I am not sure how many more examples there are, if any.)  Tesla said in 2016, “Autopilot is by far the most advanced such system on the road, but it does not… allow the driver to abdicate responsibility.”  Presumably the technology has gotten much safer in the past 2 years because California just legalized testing of fully-autonomous vehicles on public roads.  Nationally, H.R. 3388 passed the House unanimously.  The bill’s subtext says that its intent is, “to provide for information on highly automated driving systems to be made available to prospective buyers.”  Further reading though, one finds that the goal of the bill is, “encouraging the testing and deployment of such vehicles.”  (Read also: California proposes new rules for self-driving cars to pick up passengers.)

Self-driving cars have already been tested in multiple states with positive results.  For example, in California, the state with the most drivers in America and the state that is testing AVs the most, Waymo just applied to the state to do what the above law indicates: test self-driving cars without a back-up driver on public roads.  (Besides California, many other states already have laws or proposed laws on the legality of self-driving cars.) Six months ago, GM announced its plan to start testing its Chevy Bolt EV in Manhattan later in 2018.  In Connecticut, Governor Daniel P. Malloy created a pilot program, which will soon launch, to test fully-automated cars.  And this month, the Pentagon announced that it intends to become the next big AV developer, as it soon plans to use self-driving vehicles in combat.  As Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, states, “52 percent of casualties in combat zones can been attributed to military personnel delivering food, fuel and other logistics.”  Removing humans from this equation will save many lives.

Since there has been no final determination of the safety or legality of self-driving cars for the general population or for the disabled, no conclusion can be made on this post.  Some car manufacturers are addressing the public’s worries about fully autonomous cars by making them just not really that.  For example, one company, Phantom Auto, has developed a remote control car system, in which the car is “driven” remotely by an employee miles away.

But perhaps the worry about autonomous cars is similar to that which arose when America changed from horse-and-buggy to modern cars?  The concern and the extreme testing are understandable, but some states realize that the testing must stop at some point.  Is that time now?  In addition, should we allow those who are currently hindered from driving by their age or disability to get a key?

* Another issue that some have with self-driving cars is that, “AVs will record everything that happens in and around them. When a crime is committed, the police will ask nearby cars if they saw anything.”  For car accidents and other such physical and/or vehicular traumas this is a plus.  However, while a person or their family may want to know what vehicle caused their child’s car accident, do they want to give the government the ability to know exactly when they left for work, went to Walmart, refilled their gas tank, etc.?  Will self-driving cars be the means for social control?

Department of Energy: Who Knew?

I think we are all aware that the Department of Energy is not who sends us our monthly power bills to keep our lights turned on.  However, what exactly do they do?  Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry addressed this during a speech to the Hopkinsville, Kentucky Chamber of Commerce: “People might be surprised to learn that the Department of Energy oversees the country’s nuclear weapon supply, 17 national labs and research into dealing with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries.”  While the research supported by the Dept of Energy is targeted towards the military, research that develops new knowledge and new innovations for those in the military with a TBI can help all TBI survivors.  In late March, Perry toured a research facility, Brooke Army Medical Center, in his home state of Texas.  “The real recipients of what we’re doing are future warfighters, our veterans, and citizens who have had either PTSD or a traumatic brain injury,” he said during his visit.  As an Air Force veteran who served both in Europe and the Middle East, Perry is, unfortunately, all too familiar with this, through his fellow veterans.