May 16, 2019
CBS News
Jonathan LaPook

Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left hundreds of thousands of U.S. service members struggling with traumatic brain injury. Even mild cases can have lasting effects.

In one month, Sgt. Maj. Rodney Rhoades will retire from the Army, where he’s spent 32 years, serving in places like Somalia and Iraq. Those years of service took a toll. His memory began to fail. So did his ability to focus and retain information. Rhodes was diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury, or TBI.

“I wanted to fix it right now, today, what the problem was. That’s what soldiers do,” Rhoades said.

Most people recover from mild TBI. But about 15% continue to experience symptoms, which include mental health problems like depression and cognitive changes, including problems with memory and attention. Since 2000, nearly 400,000 service members have been diagnosed with TBI.

“It’s really a public health concern,” said Dr. Louis French, who studies traumatic brain injury at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

French and his team are testing a computerized brain training program to see if it could be part of a comprehensive treatment program for those with TBI.

“These are people who had demonstrable problems in memory and attention,” French said.

Eighty three service members and veterans diagnosed with TBI and cognitive impairment did five hours a week of either a program called BrainHQ or computer games. Preliminary results presented at a conference Thursday found after 12 weeks, those in the brain training program scored better than the game players on tests of cognitive function, but not on tasks of daily living like finding food items on a shelf.

“What we saw were improvements in attention and memory,” French said.

As for Rhodes, he said it didn’t take him back to where he was, but it gave him an “improvement.” But these are early days for this type of treatment. The theory is it might work by increasing the speed and accuracy of information processing by nerves in the brain, much like weight lifting increases the strength of muscles.