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VA Opens First PTSD ‘Brain Bank’



Wednesday, July 15, 2015
White River Junction — Brain tissue from veterans around the country soon will be housed in the Upper Valley as part of the first national “brain bank” devoted to post-traumatic stress disorder, said officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The White River Junction-based National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is asking for volunteers — veterans and non-veterans, those with PTSD and those without — to donate their brains to researchers working to come up with better ways to combat the disorder, said Dr. Matthew Friedman, founder of the newly opened national brain bank, and a senior adviser to the national center.

“I don’t want anyone to think that we don’t have good treatments for PTSD,” Friedman said. “The treatments we have work very well. But we only have two Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs, and nothing in the last 15 years.”

Friedman said the brain bank could advance the cause significantly.

“I definitely expect that the brain bank will lead to more powerful medications, and probably novel treatment approaches that we hadn’t even thought about before,” he said.

Research based on brain imaging has shown that there are physical differences in the brains of those diagnosed with PTSD, Friedman said, but having actual tissue samples available will open up an entire new branch of research.

Friedman expects that researchers will identify specific physical differences in the tissues of those who are more susceptible and less susceptible to PTSD; those who are ill and those who are not; and those who respond to treatment differently. Identifying the physical biomarkers of those different groups helps researchers to develop treatments that will target the disorder at the cellular level.

Many people don’t realize that there are dozens of brain banks dedicated to conditions ranging from autism to substance abuse — Friedman said there are 50 such banks in the U.S., and about 100 worldwide.

But it took more than 10 years for Friedman and others to get a brain bank entirely devoted to the understanding of PTSD.

Friedman said the breakthrough came about 18 months ago, when U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., successfully garnered bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress to secure funding to support the center, which Friedman said has recurring funding of $1.5 million.

While PTSD most closely is associated with the horrors of war experienced through military service, Friedman said civilians can develop the disorder through exposure to a wide range of traumas, including natural disasters, motor vehicle accidents or domestic violence in the home.

“The evidence seems to suggest that PTSD is PTSD,” he said. “It can affect any man, woman or child.”

Friedman said the program has received a positive response from the public since the bank opened a month ago.

“We already have 14 people who have signed up to be donors,” he said. “I am very, very optimistic that we’re going to succeed.”

The brain bank will track the health of volunteers during their lifetime; as with other organ donor programs, brain and other body tissues will be donated after death.

The National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder also announced Tuesday that it has a new executive director in Paula Schnurr, a research professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine. Schnurr has been serving as the center’s acting director for the past two years.

Friedman encourages those interested in learning more about enrolling in the brain bank to call 800-762-6609.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report. Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.