American soldiers deployed in the recent Iraq war have returned confused, with impaired concentration, and a reduced ability to remember new information. But they’ve also come back with speeded reflexes and heightened behavioural reactivity, presumably a consequence of their prolonged exposure to life-threatening situations.
That’s according to Jennifer Vasterling and colleagues, who administered a raft of neuropsychological tests to 654 soldiers before and after they were deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Changes in their test performance were compared with changes in performance among 307 soldiers who were not deployed, but who were tested at similar time points.
Ninety-eight per cent of the deployed soldiers reported being fired on while on active duty, while over half had witnessed allies or enemies being seriously wounded or killed. Just under half the sample said they had participated in daily combat missions. The researchers said that the neuropsychological changes they observed in these troops were subtle but that they could “lead to problems in everyday life” and could also “represent a prodrome or surrogate for disease”.
In light of these findings, the researchers recommended the implementation of “neuropsychological screening among military personnel returning from war-zone deployment” and “attention to the cognitive complaints of military personnel returning from deployment”.
Vasterling, J.J., Proctor, S.P., Amoroso, P., Kane, R., Heeren, T. & White, R.F. (2006). Neuropsychological outcomes of army personnel following deployment to the Iraq war. Journal of the American Medical Association, 296, 519-529.