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Leahy Pushes for PTSD Funds

Friday, August 23, 2013
White River Junction — The brain experts at the National Center for PTSD, part of the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, are hoping their campus will house the nation’s first “brain bank” for post-traumatic stress disorder, pending action from Congress.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., stopped by the center on Thursday to champion what he is calling a “key step” in securing $3 million in funding for two new projects that was included in the Senate Appropriations Committee’s military construction and veteran affairs budget bill, which still must be passed by both chambers of Congress. The money would be used to establish the first brain tissue repository for PTSD research as well as outreach to rural veterans who may be suffering from the traumatic disorder, with $1.5 million going to each cause.

Dr. Matthew Friedman, the executive director of the National Center for PTSD, said there are 55 “brain banks” in the country that study everything from alcoholism to schizophrenia, but none are devoted entirely to the study of PTSD.

“This would be a phenomenal breakthrough in helping us understand what’s different about people with PTSD, and the only reason you want to answer those questions is to develop better treatments,” Friedman said.

Friedman added that he and others in the center have been working with partners in the military and the National Institutes of Health on how to study the brain tissue, but the center has no stable source of funding for the project. He said that the traumatic experiences of war can actually alter brain structure and function.

“The best way to really understand the nature of those changes — everything from genetic expression, to psychobiology, to the way the different neurocircuitry is set up — is by getting up close and looking,” Friedman said.

Dr. Paula Schnurr, the deputy executive director of the center, said that the medical field has made progress with imaging systems such as MRI and CT scans, “but you can’t get all of the way with imaging.

“Some things can only be done with the brain specimen, so that’s why it really is groundbreaking,” Schnurr said. “It’s this next frontier that we can’t get to without the brain tissue.”

The program would use full brain specimens that would be prepared and frozen, though it is unclear at this point if that would take place on the medical campus in White River Junction or elsewhere.

In the round of introductions before Leahy spoke, he met several employees at the center and asked them questions about what their experiences working with veterans have been like. He explained later that he wants stories to bring back to Congress in order to provide real life examples of why the funding is important.

“I want this to work,” Leahy said.

As for the outreach program, Leahy said that in a rural state like Vermont, veterans often rely on community health centers instead of seeking medical professionals with more expertise in dealing with the aftermath of war on the human body.

“You have people afraid to go anywhere to ask for help, because you don’t talk about this until it’s too late,” Leahy said. “But these folks are doing the cutting edge things.”

Ben Conarck can be reached at or 603-727-3213

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