A new Puget Sound-area program hopes to get donated brains from local active duty and veteran soldiers to study whether duty-related concussions and other head injuries cause diseases such as Alzheimer’s and CTE.
As the nation honors its military this Memorial Day weekend, local brain scientists are asking the families of Puget Sound-area service members to consider one last contribution.
Researchers at the University of Washington and the local Veterans Affairs health-care system have begun collecting the donated brains of service members to examine for possible dementia and other disorders linked to repeated blast injury and head trauma.
It’s a fledgling program called the Pacific Northwest Brain Donor Network, an effort aimed at understanding the impact of mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) on active-duty military members and veterans.
Service members or others who want to learn more about donation can contact the research hotline at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System at 206-277-5566 or toll-free at 800-329-8387, ext. 65566.
For additional information, visit UW Medicine’s Memory and Brain Wellness Center at www.uwmedicine.org/locations/memory-wellness.
“We are going to study these brains to the full extent that we are capable,” said Dr. C. Dirk Keene, who leads the neuropathology core at UW Medicine. “They are so rare, so valuable and just so precious, and can give us so much information about what these exposures mean.”
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Keene and his colleagues, including Dr. Elaine Peskind, who co-directs the Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Centers at VA Puget Sound, will be looking for signs that service members with mTBI also may have developed disorders including Alzheimer’s disease or chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
CTE has received wide attention recently after a large number of former American football players were diagnosed with the neurological disorder. Like football players, troops who suffer repeated concussions or other head trauma may develop the debilitating condition, which is diagnosed only after death.
But, so far, little research has confirmed any military connection.
“What’s been published previously is on the brains of five Iraq veterans,” Peskind said. “Another paper will be published soon with another five veterans. There’s just nothing out there.”
Since the program started in March, researchers have acquired three brains. They include donations from one military veteran, a middle-aged man who had not been exposed to blast injury, and a military contractor, a woman, also middle-aged, who had worked in a war zone.
The donations also include the brain of Cody Duran, 30, of Lakewood, who died suddenly April 5 from an unknown cause, his mother said. Victoria Padron, 57, retired from the Army National Guard after 22 years and works in the women’s health clinic at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System.
“I donated everything,” she said. “Whatever they could use, they could have.”
Padron’s son wasn’t a veteran, but his young brain will serve as a control, an example of normal tissue against which scientists will measure changes.
For every brain from a veteran that researchers acquire, they’ll also need the brain of someone who didn’t serve, Keene explained. Researchers expect to receive one brain a month for the study.
Families helping science
The brains will be stored at UW’s brain bank, which already holds some 2,000 brains donated to study dementias and other diseases of aging. Although there are at least eight brain banks across the U.S., none is focused on studying military injuries, Keene said.
One reason is that many brain banks focus on collecting samples from people with fatal disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Participants in those studies know their fate and agree in advance to donate their brains after death.
“The approach we have to take for our service veterans is very different, because they are young people and we don’t expect them to die soon,” Peskind said.
For that reason, finding donors is more difficult for this new project. The researchers are working with SightLife, a nonprofit global tissue-donation organization, and the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office. Those groups will identify and reach out to families of potential donors, typically those who have died without warning.
“The challenge that comes from this kind of study and these particular people is they haven’t ever thought about brain donation, but the decision has to be made very quickly,” Keene said. “SightLife has been really, really important. They are trained to discuss these kinds of matters. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to cause as little trauma as possible.”
For Padron, the request to donate her son’s brain within days of his death was a “bizarre question,” she said. But she quickly agreed because it was what her son, a father of three young children, would have wanted.
“That’s how Cody was, a super-generous person,” she said. “By giving his eyes, his eyes will continue living. By giving his brain to science, learning will continue.”
Information from the study will be open to other researchers, Keene said. The early effort was praised by Dr. John F. Crary, a neuropathologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.
“I’m impressed that you guys have set up this donor network,” he said in an email to Keene. “Should be very informative.”
The pilot study was paid for in part by a $30,000 grant from the federal Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centers obtained by Dr. Desiree Marshall, an assistant medical examiner at the King County Medical Examiner’s Office who has also been working with Peskind.
Combining the study of military injuries with dementias and other disorders makes sense, Marshall said. It will be interesting to see whether the brains of veterans have signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, including a newly defined marker, a particular brain lesion caused by abnormal accumulations of proteins called tau. Tau proteins are considered a prime cause of Alzheimer’s disease.
The goal now is to increase the number of brains collected — and to find more funding, either through philanthropy or grants, the researchers said.
“It’s so limited, the amount of information we have now,” Marshall said. “Each brain, each case, is going to be so important.”