MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Some 260,000 cases of traumatic brain injury or TBI have been reported among U.S. service members from their time serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Well, now the Defense Department has decided to set up a brain tissue bank to better understand, treat and prevent brain injury. The tissue repository will be under the direction of neuropathologist Dr. Daniel Perl, and he joins me now. Welcome to the program.
DR. DANIEL PERL: Thank you.
BLOCK: And how will the brain tissue bank work?
PERL: Well, the brain tissue bank will collect specimens from deceased service members whose families have decided to donate the brain for use in research. And it's very similar to programs that have gone on for many years for studying other kinds of diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and more recently the problems occurring among NFL football players.
The specimens that accumulate in the brain tissue bank will be made available to expert scientists throughout the world, and we hope that this will provide us with the answers that we need in terms of understanding the nature of this problem.
BLOCK: And with the service members who have reported TBI, traumatic brain injury, what are some of the problems that you've been seeing?
PERL: We know that many of them come home from deployment and they complain of persistent problems in terms of brain function. They have sleep disorder. They have problems in terms of concentrating, memory problems, personality changes, anger management, depression. We really need to sort out how much of this is related to physical damage to the brain as opposed to a psychiatric response to being on the battlefield.
BLOCK: So what specifically are you going to be looking for in the brain tissue? I mean, how does that help you answer the questions that you have?
PERL: We need to understand how exposure to these high explosives damage the brain, what areas of the brain is damaged and, in particular, how the brain responds in terms of trying to heal from that damage. And this can only be answered by looking at the brain tissue directly.
BLOCK: You mentioned how the brain tries to heal itself, which is a fascinating idea.
PERL: Yeah, sure. The brain is clearly not a casual bystander to this damage and attempts to heal itself. And so, by understanding the way in which the brain is attempting to heal itself, this give us an opportunity to possibly modify that either in terms of making the healing response more efficient or looking at how the brain is attempting to correct the damage that has occurred.
BLOCK: What would other long-term goals be for your research if you better understand brain injury on the battlefield? What might follow from that?
PERL: We feel that this will be very helpful in devising methods to better diagnose the nature of the problem, in particular, in terms of preventing it as well as treating it.
BLOCK: So if you wanted to prevent traumatic brain injury in a practical world, how would you do that if folks are in the battlefield and improvised explosive devices are all around?
PERL: Well, in terms of injury to other organs in the body, we've developed a really remarkably effective body armor, but until we understand the nature of the damage that occurs related to these explosions - devising, for example, better helmets really needs that information. Plus, we need to know what the long-term effects of these traumatic brain injuries are.
If they are triggering these kinds of long-term damage to the brain similar to what's being seen in football players, for example, we need to know that and then we can begin to devise strategies in terms of trying to prevent it.
BLOCK: So how do you go about trying to convince families of service members that this is worthwhile and that they should consider donating the brain of their loved one?
PERL: This is a difficult issue. It's very sensitive issue. But I think that this is a way in which the family of a service member can really bring some meaning to the life and actually the death of their loved one so that they can help others who are in the service of their country who are suffering from those problems and that the death ends up having some meaning to others.
BLOCK: That's Dr. Daniel Perl. He's director of the brain tissue repository for traumatic brain injury that's been established by the Pentagon. Dr. Perl, thanks so much.
PERL: Thank you.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that human genetic material cannot be patented. Tomorrow, on NPR's WEEKEND EDITION, Scott Simon will talk with a bioethicist about the implications of that decision. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.