In this week’s Chats with the Chief, VHA Chief of Staff Jon Jensen talks post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with Veteran Dr. Russ Huber, director of the PTSD Brain Bank at the VA Boston Healthcare System.
The call to serve
After Huber’s great-grandfather died in a concentration camp in Germany in World War II, his grandmother emigrated to the United States. There, Huber grew up during the Cold War, with the very real fear of a nuclear attack. These experiences compelled him to join the military to give back to the country that offered refuge to his family and provided him with so many opportunities.
Today, Huber is a neuropathologist, someone who studies diseases of the brain and nervous system. He completed his residency at the University of Washington, where he received a fellowship studying PTSD, and has continued to serve VA for the last eight years.
Link between brain disease and PTSD
The study of PTSD, Dr. Huber notes, did not start until after World War I. It was initially called “shell shock” due to its association with soldiers’ exposure to shells and explosives.
Today the condition has come to be recognized as a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event such as might be experienced on the battlefield.
When Huber first started at VA, he studied the traumatic effects of strong blasts, such as artillery explosions and shelling, on the human brain. Today, thanks to brains donated to the Brain Bank, his work focuses on understanding the underlying causes of PTSD.
Unlike classic brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, there are no physical changes to the brain with PTSD that can be seen under a classic microscope. But as Huber learned in the military, “all limitations are self-imposed.”
So he and his team use technology such as fluorescence microscopes to help see brain tissue in a new way. He has thus worked to identify how PTSD is associated with increased risk of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Different genders, different effects
Huber is confident his team’s research will eventually help identify new treatments for Veterans suffering from PTSD and help prevent other brain disorders linked with it. Thanks to a partnership with the nonprofit group Pink Concussions, Huber is also studying how PTSD affects men and women differently – this is important because women are also the fastest-growing group of Veterans in VA.
Need for more brains
Huber notes that his work is a direct result of generous brain donations. Without them, his research would not be possible. He hopes others will be inspired to contribute their own brains to science so that one day, no one will have to suffer from the long-term effects of PTSD.