August 2, 2006

Some Iraq War Vets Suffer Mental Deficits

CHICAGO -- Feelings of confusion, difficulty concentrating and memory lapses were fairly common among a sample of U.S. soldiers examined after they returned from wartime duty in Iraq, researchers said on Tuesday.

The study comparing soldiers' mental capabilities and emotional states before and after deployment showed that, while the majority of veterans may not be afflicted with the flashbacks and dark moods associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, unwelcome psychological changes affected many returning soldiers.

The latest study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found several often "subtle" changes in mental function among a sample of 654 U.S. Army veterans. The soldiers were deployed for a year. Nearly all reported being shot at, and two-thirds witnessed people being wounded or killed.

"Our findings indicating deployment effects on sustained attention, learning and memory following Iraq deployment cannot be attributed to pre-existing dysfunction," wrote study author Jennifer Vasterling of Tulane University School of Medicine.

Many of the veterans exhibited quicker reaction times than before their deployment. They also reacted more quickly than 307 soldiers who were not deployed. Researchers described the faster reaction times as conditioned "flight or fight" responses honed in war.

A U.S. Government Accountability Office report released in May found more than 6 percent of Army soldiers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan were considered at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder, but only 22 percent of those at risk were evaluated.

Another study published this year in the same journal said nearly one in 10 U.S. soldiers who served in Iraq suffered from post-traumatic stress - a disorder that can lead to nightmares, flashbacks and delusional thinking.

In the current study, psychological profiles of the returning veterans showed about three out of 10 reported some mental confusion after deployment, compared to two out of 10 before. Similarly, nearly three out of 10 suffered deficits in maintaining attention, verbal learning skills, and memory after deployment. More than one out of four veterans likely suffered from depression.

"Even small declines in the ability to sustain attentional focus and learn and remember new information may reflect subtle neural dysfunction, lead to problems in day-to-day life, and affect performance in high-pressure contexts, such as subsequent war-zone participation," Vasterling wrote.