War zone-related stress may alter microstructure of brain, study finds

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A recent study found a link between war zone-related stress and changes to the brain’s limbic gray matter (GM) microstructure, which was associated with cognitive function, according to researchers.

The study, published in JAMA Network Open, was conducted by researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. The study set out to investigate associations between war zone-related stress and alterations in limbic GM microstructure independent of common mental disorders experienced by veterans. In addition, the team studied whether associations between war zone-related stress and limbic GM microstructure modulated mild traumatic brain injury (TBI), and how changes in limbic GM microstructure may influence cognitive functioning.

Researchers recruited 384 male veterans who were part of the Translational Research Center for TBI and Stress Disorders study which was conducted from 2010 to 2014. Each participant had available diffusion tensor imaging data and were aged 19 to 65. Researchers performed data analysis between December 2017 and September 2021.

The investigation’s results suggested that there was an association between war zone-related stress and alteration of limbic GM microstructure. The team also found the limbic GM microstructure had an impact on cognitive functioning.  

“These findings suggest that war zone-related stress may lead to microstructure alterations in the brain,” said corresponding author Inga Koerte, MD, of the Psychiatry Neuroimaging Laboratory in the Brigham’s Department of Psychiatry. “These changes may underlie the deleterious outcomes of war zone-related stress on brain health. Given these findings, military service members may benefit from early therapeutic interventions following deployment.”