A Soldier's Story: My Brother and PTSD
My brother has always been really smart and aware. So smart that his buddies in the Marine Corps called him "The Professor" because he could spout ready facts about anything. He joined the Marines at 18 for the adventure promised in the advertisements. What he got was different.
First, he guarded a nuclear site, wearing only his uniform, while all the facility staff wore protective clothing. Next, he was sent to the first Gulf War where there weren't enough gas masks or other supplies for the troops, and my mom sent supplies for my brother to distribute. My brother came back from that war, luckily, but not as the same young man. He had seen how little the government protected him, and he was sickened by fighting against poor, young Iraqis, many of them just boys, who had no choice in being soldiers. Many of them surrendered to him. He saw others blown to bits and their remains scattered everywhere. He came back with clear symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that still bother him today, decades later. He became a teacher, a very good one. He has four beautiful children, and he is a great father. He is still brilliant and sensitive, but now he has nightmares, depression and anxiety. Where is the government to help him now?
"Imagine if we could reverse traumatic brain injury and PTSD for our wounded veterans coming home," said President Barack Obama, at an event unveiling of the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative at the White House.
We are our brains. Everything we think, feel, observe, do and say is brain powered. It is amazing that such an important feature of humanity and individual identity is not already fully understood when we have been to the moon and appear to have "solved one of the most fundamental riddles of the universe: how the Big Bang created something out of nothing 13.7 billion years ago" when scientists at CERN declared they are confident they have found a Higgs boson, the elusive subatomic speck sometimes called the "God Particle."
America, however is on the verge of a period of intense discovery as exciting as the discoveries made about space travel and the creation of matter. This time the challenge is not about the mysteries of the universe, but the mysteries of our own minds and bodies. President Obama used his State of the Union address after his reelection to announce a National Brain Mapping Project. At a White House ceremony unveiling the project, Obama proposed $100 million in federal funding to kick start the BRAIN Initiative. This public investment will be matched with private funds in a partnership designed to fund research that could lead to many discoveries such as: better treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Autism, Parkinson's, Multiple Sclerosis, Depression, safer sports equipment and playing practices, and even better teaching methods. "As humans we can identify galaxies light-years away, study particles smaller than an atom but we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the 3 pounds of matter than sits between our ears," Obama said.
The scientists who will be working on the National BRAIN Initiative Project will be conducting pure scientific research to unlock the mysteries of the brain. But how will the data gleaned be put into practice to solve real world problems? How will scientific research impact and secure better treatment of PTSD for war veterans like my brother or get translated into better teaching methods that will keep our children focused in school? In what ways will new brain mapping methods help prevent, treat or cure the brain cancer that killed my father-in-law and the degenerative brain disease that killed my grandmother?
A Brain Powered Economy
The application of the research results to real life problems will happen through the ingenuity of many Americans.
Ideas are what power our economy. It's what sets us apart. It's what America has been all about. We have been a nation of dreamers and risk-takers; people who see what nobody else sees sooner than anybody else sees it. We do innovation better than anybody else -- and that makes our economy stronger. When we invest in the best ideas before anybody else does, our businesses and our workers can make the best products and deliver the best services before anybody else.
One such organization already applying neuroscience research to improve lives is The George Greenstein Institute (GGI). I joined the founding board of this institute because as the daughter of neuroscientists, I know many of the prominent scientists and current theories about the brain. I also joined this board because of my brother and all the other veterans, who deserve to be healed from PTSD, and for my children, and all the children, who may benefit from better teaching methods that are neurologically sound, and who may take part in new science, technology and design careers that grow out of investments in neuroscience.
Already in development at GGI are the following programs and initiatives:
1. GGI's PurpleHeart/ Brain Smart initiative to advocate for and work with Military Veterans and their families.
2. Inventio!Brains "ABC" System that addresses Advocacy, Building Brain Health Policy and Camps and Conversations to embolden the lives of underserved youth and Military Veterans and inspire fresh leadership to invest in future research for public health and education.
3. Inventio!Brains.com designed to gamify brain research challenges in order to coax young art/scientists to collaborate for the love of science, brains and a future career in neurotech research, diagnostics and theraputics.
4. Bodiesinspace.com offers cultural commentary on the mind/body dialogue through the lens of arts, contemplative psychology and neuroscience.
And much more is in the works at GGI as we collaborate with scientists, artists and designers to apply neuroscience in the real world to help us live better, healthier, longer and more enriching lives. As for my family, and so many families who have loved ones with trauma, attention issues, memory loss or other neurological problems, there is no time to waste: we need all hands on deck to address these problems now.
As Dr. M.A. Greenstein, founder and CEO of The George Greenstein Institute says:
With the advent of globally connected education and research, and with the President's BRAIN Initiative in view, we have the golden opportunity to create a defining, scientific moment in our lives and in our children's lives. This is our Space Race, our Moon Quest. We each have a stake in the scientific journey quite simply because we each have the neuroplastic potential to grow our brains.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Bodiesinspace.com is "recognized by the Society for Neuroscience."