July 8th, 2011
03:30 PM ET
For a special look at "Battlefield Breakthroughs: Helping at Home," tune in to "Sanjay Gupta, M.D.," Saturday-Sunday 7:30 a.m. ET
From CNN’s Barbara Starr and Jennifer Rizzo
Soldiers in full combat gear file into a hot, deafeningly loud, and dark room. Fake blood covers the floor and drips off the plastic body parts that are scattered about. Smoke and strobe lights mix with heavy metal music and the sound of recorded screams.
After weeks of behavioral therapy for traumatic brain injuries, the soldiers are facing this intense simulation to show that they can get back to their daily work—combat.
Staff Sgt. Aaron Potter is among the group of patients at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, going through this final assessment.
“It’s probably the closest you can get without having the real thing. The smoke, the smells, the noises, the injuries,” Potter says after exiting the simulation.
In 2009 Potter was knocked unconscious when he was hit by three IEDS at once in Iraq. This is his second round of therapy at Fort Campbell, after breaking down under the stress of the room simulation the first time around.
"I really struggle with multitasking and getting multiple things done at one time, where as before I never really had a problem with that, Potter says. “Now there are slight problems but I am a lot better off than I was."
When Potter came home to his wife and two sons from Iraq, his brain injury left him unable to concentrate, focus on tasks or even deal with basic chores around the house.
"Within a week or two I started to pick up on how either he didn't understand what I was saying to him. Simple things that he normally did, he couldn't do them. He couldn't do them or just didn't understand how to do them,” says Tiffany, Potter’s wife.
Tiffany urged him to get help at the base's clinic. Neither of them realized at the time it was a brain injury.
"Some of the things he was having to deal with were making it difficult for him to do his job well so it was really a time for us to come together and say hey look we can actually help, we can make a difference here," says Dr. David Twillie, director of the Fort Campbell Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic.
Doctors at Fort Campbell have developed a new approach to treating the type of war zone brain injuries these soldiers are trying to recover from. The advanced treatment relies on identifying the parts of the brain that have suffered trauma, recognizing the tasks the patient is having trouble with that relate to that part of the brain, and then getting to work, exercising the brain, regenerating and reenergizing specific brain functions.
“The brain is a use it or lose it organ,” says Dr. Bret Logan, the executive director of Fort Campbell’s Warrior Resiliency and Recovery Center. “So what you need is to continue to exercise it by making it do what it does. What we have is a brain gymnasium.”
But how do you exercise the injured parts of your brain? At Fort Campbell there are exercises for balance, puzzles for concentration and video games to teach relaxation.
It’s a treatment that doctors there say can help those suffering any type of brain injury– a sports injury, a car accident or a gun shot.
Logan says he'd like to see this comprehensive approach not just at major metropolitan trauma centers, but migrate throughout civilian care.
“For most people everywhere else in the world they will not find integrated centers designed to treat mild traumatic brain injury with this kind of process,” Logan says.
Retraining the brain, he thinks may work in treating brain disorders like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.
"We believe you can and you do that be exercising the part of the brain which is responsible for that function," says Logan.
But the doctor stops short of saying it’s a cure.
"What we are saying is we can slow, maybe even for periods arrest the process of decline in that area of the brain."
There’s also no reason he says that this type of therapy would work only for soldiers. Logan claims it could even help drug addicts and alcoholics recover brain function. When it comes to changing brain and behavior he says, counseling just isn't enough.
“Counseling programs, rehab are really about stopping the pattern, finding other ways to deal with stress in your life and no longer using the substance. But you’re still left with the brain that you’ve created over whatever period you’ve used toxic drugs,” Logan says. “If that brain is not adequate, not functioning well due to that toxicity, then rehab will not help you with that. Then you must move on to these aggressive techniques that will allow you to strengthen, retrain, energize your brain.”
At the end of it all, Aaron enters a room filled with all of his doctors and sits down for his evaluation
"Sit with us for a moment, join the circle,’ jokes Twillie.
Initial laughter turns serious. For Aaron all the hard work now comes down to the finish line. His therapy team tells him he's done well. If he still wants to, he's likely to serve again.
And Aaron is not alone. 80% of the soldiers who go through this program recover enough to return to duty. The doctors at Fort Campbell say it’s a lesson for all of us. Your brain needs exercise.
About this blog
Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.