General News Research — 10 September 2012

Soldiers deployed to Afghanistan should have frequent reviews and service breaks, an expert recommends, after a study revealed the adverse effects combat stress has on brain circuits.

The Dutch research, published in PNAS, found prolonged combat stress could hamper the abilities of soldiers to complete tasks and reduced their attention span.

To confirm the suspicion, the authors studied 22 soldiers before and 1.5 months after deployment and compared their results to a control group of 26 never deployed soldiers.

The authors said the reduction in midbrain activity is reversible after a period of 1.5 years, but “the persistent changes in the mesofrontal connectivity may increase the vulnerability to subsequent stressors and promote later development of difficulties with cognitive, social and occupational functioning”.

Professor Sandy McFarlane, Centre for Traumatic Studies director and the University of Adelaide Psychiatry said the findings reinforce the need for combat breaks.

“This current paper is important as it demonstrates that soldiers require regular periods of respite from combat exposure to let their neurophysiology reset itself,” professor McFarlane said.

“The fact that there is a lasting disruption of prefrontal connectivity highlights that people do have a limit to how much traumatic stress they can endure.

Professor McFarlane called for enhanced support services for all combat soldiers and measures to evaluate their wellbeing on a frequent basis.

“We have reached the time when this should not be considered an optional extra,” he said.

As first appeared in Psychiatry Update. Source: PNAS, 2012: doi:10.1073/pnas.1206330109

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