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Teasing Out Differences in Brain Disorders

Craig Marquardt is working to tease apart the influences of PTSD and TBIs on returning vets
December 9, 2015

Portrait: Craig Marquardt

Portrait: Craig Marquardt
Photo by Jack Swift, CLAgency student

Since 2001, thousands of soldiers have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan. These veterans endured the danger of improvised explosive devices—or IEDs—that cause many casualties. Today’s medical and technological advances (including the protection of armored vehicles) save many lives but have also changed the nature of the injuries that veterans are experiencing.

Although veterans may appear unharmed physically, they may be harboring a mental scar. Mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) diagnoses have been hallmarks of these recent military conflicts. Many veterans inflicted mTBIs report trouble thinking, poor concentration, and difficulty sleeping. Notably, these symptoms overlap with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—which creates a confusing diagnostic picture not only for veterans, but also for the practitioners who provide care.

What are the underlying contributors to these symptoms? Graduate student Craig Marquardt is currently using electroencephalography (EEG) to study returning veterans’ brain waves to investigate potential biomarkers of PTSD and mTBI through a collaboration with Dr. Scott Sponheim of Minneapolis' Veterans Affairs Health Care System (VAHCS).

With a particular interest in mood and anxiety disorders, Marquardt works to tease apart the independent influences of both PTSD and mTBI. Interpreting the differences between PTSD and mTBI is critical for understanding the reported symptoms of veterans. “Anything that we can do to better characterize their experiences will have a trickle-down effect to the quality of care that we can give to these people,” says Marquardt.

A surprising aspect of the data is that often the symptoms of PTSD seem to have more influence on brain and psychological functioning than the actual traumatic brain injury. Intuition could lead people to think of one as psychological and the other as biological—in reality, PTSD also has measurable effects on the brain as seen in Marquardt’s experimental work.

Marquardt is continuing a longstanding tradition of collaboration between Minneapolis' VAHCS and the Department of Psychology, which provides access to a wellspring of data and a chance for students to explore these important issues concerning the health of veterans with greater depth. Marquardt's advisor, Professor Scott Sponheim, is one of the many affiliated faculty of whom graduate students are able to collaborate with. Additionally, funding for his research came from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Cognitive Sciences and the College of Liberal Arts, as well as the National Science Foundation.

His research aims to inform assessments and eventually guide decisions about the treatment of soldiers when they return from the battlefield. Marquardt has broad hopes for the potential of his research. “As characterization of brain injuries and psychological disorders becomes more precise, practitioners will be able to provide targeted treatment that addresses needs of each individual veteran.”

This story was writtten by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.