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University students gain chance to work with veterans

April 4, 2016
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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The multifaceted challenges that many returning military veterans face have certainly made this population a desired target group for helping professionals in training. The University of Maryland and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda have launched a new partnership that will offer more graduate students access to research facilities and clinical resources aimed at assisting wounded warriors.

The two entities last month announced a multidisciplinary educational partnership in which graduate students will participate in research projects aimed at the treatment of military personnel. Among the conditions affecting subjects in these research projects are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI); substance use problems often are observed as a complicating factor in the course of both of these conditions.

“This educational partnership agreement vastly expands opportunities for research training of our graduate students, while at the same time providing new streams of financial support for students we wish to recruit to our graduate programs,” says University of Maryland Professor Sandra Gordon-Salant, director of the doctoral program in clinical audiology at the school's Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences. “The partnership also will enable [the university] to attract graduate students with more specific interests in studying health-related issues faced by wounded warriors.”

Besides PTSD and TBI, other health issues expected to be commonly seen in the military population with which the graduate students will work are sleep deprivation, balance problems resulting from head injury, and hearing loss resulting from noise exposure.

Graduate students in any discipline at the university will be eligible to take advantage of this focused research opportunity. It is expected that students in the School of Public Health and the Neuroscience and Cognitive Science Program will be among the most likely to participate, along with students in Gordon-Salant's department.

The partnership agreement “will open the doors for graduate students to participate in and design unique translational research studies addressing the physical, behavioral, and social needs of the men and women who have so bravely served our nation,” says Ken W. Grant, chief of the scientific and clinical studies section at Walter Reed Bethesda. Grant adds that for the university, the agreement “will afford new opportunities for faculty and students alike to take their ideas from the laboratory and translate them into clinical practice.”

The University of Maryland and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center already have a history of collaborating on projects designed to benefit wounded warriors. Ongoing projects involving the two institutions include development of new measures of working memory and processing speed that address the particular challenges facing veterans with closed-head injuries. The entities also have partnered on research in areas such as military personnel's speech recognition performance in real-world noise environments.

Intersection with substance use

Of course, it is likely that anytime researchers or clinicians are working with a population with PTSD or TBI, substance use will be present as a complicating factor. Also, some research has placed the prevalence of TBI in the substance use treatment population at a level as high as 60%. However, the difficulty of differentiating TBI from other disorders often means that brain injury and its associated effects never appear on the radar of substance use treatment professionals.

It is believed that the comorbidity of TBI and substance use disorders is common because the presence of either disorder increases the risk of developing the other. Research experts say the problems with impulsivity that are often present in the brain-injured patient pose a significant risk for developing problems with use of substances.