A few studies in recent years are showing possible signs that soldiers who have had a traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by battlefield explosions are mistakenly diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, what might be happening is that the soldiers’ pituitary glands have been damaged by the blast–which has led them to develop hormonal deficiencies and symptoms that mimic PTSD.
Charles Wilkinson, a neuroendocrinologist at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle, is one of the leading researchers on this topic. In a recent study from his lab, he found that as many as 40% of soldiers diagnosed with TBI go on to develop hormonal symptoms that are mistaken for PTSD. His sample size is small, and more research needs to be done, but his findings might help us better understand some of the symptoms associated with PTSD.
These hormone secretions from the pituitary––a pea-sized gland at the base of the brain––are also linked to TBI caused from collisions on the sports field or car accidents. The results of one study, published in July 2015 in the Journal of American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, showed that TBI-induced hypopituitarism appears to be more common in patients with severe TBI.Nicholas Tritos, a neuroendocrinologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, is also studying TBI-related pituitary disorders. In a study published last fall in the National Center for Biotechnical Information, Dr. Tritos and his team found that TBI-related pituitary disorders vary widely and are by no means universally common.
More research needs to be done on both military and civilian patients with TBI. This in itself is a challenge as recruitment of soldiers for studies has proven to be difficult. Moreover, as Tony Gladstone, Senior Clinical Research Fellow at Imperial College London, who also studies this topic, notes: soldiers in the UK no longer go to active war zones, so there are no subjects to study.
There are no big takeaways as of yet because connections between head injuries and the pituitary gland are not entirely clear. Furthermore, the sample sizes of the studies are small and the results indicate a large possibility of connections and factors.