July 8th, 2011
03:30 PM ET

CPR for your brain

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.

Post by: ,
Filed under: Brain • PTSD

soundoff (66 Responses)
  1. Tracy

    "...his brain injury left him unable to concentrate, focus on tasks or even deal with basic chores around the house."

    So what is every other man's excuse?!

    July 8, 2011 at 17:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rdubbia

      Really Tracy, to lump general laziness or your perception of laziness with a serious issue facing out troops in combat is low class.

      July 9, 2011 at 11:22 | Report abuse |
    • Ryan

      If they did better in high school they wouldnt have to worry about these kind of problems...

      July 10, 2011 at 00:37 | Report abuse |
    • Elizabeth

      Tracy, I know you are joking, but it is a problem for many women. But there may be similar reasons to the soldiers: did your husband participate in high school or college athletics, where he may have had brain injuries? Has he had an annual physical including liver tests to see if he might have any non-alcoholic liver problems that can take away from his ability to reason? Does he eat the right foods and exercise? Does he have chronic pain (which he might be thinking is normal, when it isn't)? My husband stopped helping around the house, and it turned out that he had cancer. But even his primary-care physician just gave him anti-spasmodics for awhile. If your husband does not want to find a reason why he isn't participating, you have to tell him that it is important to you that he participates, and if there is a problem maybe it can be addressed, because preventing an illness or stopping an illness in early stages is much better than letting him die young.

      July 10, 2011 at 14:47 | Report abuse |
    • Dee

      I have to admit that is good.

      July 10, 2011 at 15:22 | Report abuse |
    • Silentboy741

      All the good men are taken by women other than you.

      July 11, 2011 at 11:45 | Report abuse |
  2. Tracy

    "Within a week or two I started to pick up on how either he didn't understand what I was saying to him."

    Gee, that sounds familiar.

    July 8, 2011 at 17:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • disabledvet


      July 9, 2011 at 16:30 | Report abuse |
    • sam mason

      Tracy, you are missing the point so move away from that issue. There are men and women that have the same problems and are dealing with them. I am sure there is many stereotypical things that can be said of any gender, race, etc. Focus on the task or maybe you could use some of the exercises used in the program.

      July 10, 2011 at 08:19 | Report abuse |
  3. Michelle

    Tracy, you are a vile woman, if you're using quotes from an injured Soldier to gripe about men. I'm a woman and an Army veteran. I had a nasty concussion after falling off a Deuce and a Half (that's an Army truck, for you civilians) and cracking my head on concrete. I wasn't injured nearly as badly as the brave souls described in this article, but even so, for two months, even though I was trying to keep up with what was going on around me. It was like living in a fog.

    So, I'm sorry that you're so bitter about men. However, this is not the place to vent about them. These Soldiers here are my brothers in uniform, and are trying to recover from horrific injuries incurred while they were following orders.

    Take your bitter diatribe elsewhere.

    July 8, 2011 at 17:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mark

      Thank you.

      July 8, 2011 at 18:58 | Report abuse |
    • Peter


      July 8, 2011 at 23:59 | Report abuse |
    • Fiona

      Michelle, her jokes don't quadiatribe "diatribe". Look it up, for heaven's sake. They may be in poor taste, but they're funny. I don't get the impression she's bitter. I suspect she's just been married for a long time...like me.

      I'm sorry for your injuries. Thank you for your service.

      July 9, 2011 at 04:02 | Report abuse |
    • Jimmy-James

      Fiona, physician heal thyself! I will help you. Diatribe: a bitter, sharply abusive denunciation, attack, or criticism. That's exactly what Tracy did. In the words of Tom Lehrer, "Don't write dirty words on walls if you can't spell."

      July 9, 2011 at 04:38 | Report abuse |
    • Gussogirl

      Michelle–Well said! And thank you so much for your service to our great country. Praying that all residual effects of your injury have been resolved.

      July 9, 2011 at 14:50 | Report abuse |
    • Tracy

      I would join the service before I would get married lol.

      July 9, 2011 at 16:04 | Report abuse |
    • Elizabeth

      It is noble to join the service and give so much to our country. Thank you to all the vets.
      Tracy – if you feel that it is the best place for you, then you should join and serve.
      And everybody else – Raising a family well also deserves some credit, and for some it is an uphill battle, with little help.

      July 10, 2011 at 14:54 | Report abuse |
  4. Añna Marie Jenkins

    I am thankfull that Fort Campbell is doing something for the soldiers who were injured fighting for our country. Hopefully what Fort Campbell learns will trickle down to the rest of the population.

    The theory of You use it or lose it can be used for other parts of the body. I suggested that to a former neighbor, who was a noted civil rights attorney. He told me that I made more sense than his doctors and that he would increase his walks to daily. You saw him out daily walking with his two canes. He told me on one walk that he liked walking better than lying in bed.

    July 9, 2011 at 03:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • sam mason

      People please take the time to research the book, "The Brain That Changes Itself", by Norman Doidge, M.D. It talks about how the brain retrains itself through exercising the brain for specific injuries or problems. Very interesting information.

      July 10, 2011 at 08:14 | Report abuse |
  5. Fiona

    It sounds like a cruel therapy. Trauma to chase away trauma?

    July 9, 2011 at 03:56 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Stacy

      Fiona, it's a stepped up stress experience that will help the patient handle stressful situations in daily life. They mentioned that he had to go through weeks of treatment before reaching this capstone exercise. Those weeks were spent building up the stress levels to prepare him for this round of testing and real life.

      July 9, 2011 at 22:01 | Report abuse |
    • Nicole

      It's called exposure therapy. The most successful treatments for PTSD are based on reliving the experience in a controlled environment. The same applies to most anxiety disorders- learning new coping skills can help, but your best chance at partial or full remission is an exposure based therapy.

      July 10, 2011 at 05:27 | Report abuse |
    • Elizabeth

      My father served in WWII. He said that the point of basic training was so that soldiers would not be too afraid on the battlefield. They even had an exercise of crawling under live ammo. Even though some soldiers died during this exercise (because of stray bullets), the soldiers who were trained had a much better survival rate on the battlefields than untrained soldiers. Most of the purpose of any training is to familiarize ones'self and reduce stress.

      July 10, 2011 at 15:00 | Report abuse |
  6. Lisa

    Can this "test" help people with siezures ?

    July 9, 2011 at 07:59 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Elizabeth

      An interesting question, because seizures are not brought on by emotional stress, but such things as repeated flashing or bright lights, loud sounds, etc.

      July 10, 2011 at 15:02 | Report abuse |
  7. a friend of Will H.

    The article says volumes about how our military is recognizing the importance of these injuries and the rehabilation needed by those affected. Perhaps those with mental illness returning from combat will be afforded the same care. My friends son returned from Iraq in a terrible mental state. He was ignored by his superiors, told to "man up"...he now sits in prison for the next 6 years. No the military didn't cause him to get there. He did it himself. However, had his concerns and inner trauma been dealt with in a compassionate manner he might not be where he is. Thank you to all of our soldiers for their service and all that they endure.

    July 9, 2011 at 09:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Catherine

    I found this very interesting and hopeful not only for soldiers, but for civilians with TBI. Do you know who I could contact at Fort Campbell to see if this therapy could be used on a civilian? I am looking for help for a TBI patient. Best wishes for your family and thank you for serving our country. We are forever in debt to our military.

    July 9, 2011 at 09:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Stacy

      Catherine, currently this treatment at Fort Campbell is only for active duty military. Best of luck to your friend with TBI.

      July 9, 2011 at 22:05 | Report abuse |
  9. rrock

    The real question is why are we wasting all these soldiers on a war that doesn't make any sense. We give money to Pakistan, they aid the Taliban, we fight to support a corrupt government in Afghanistan when the 9/11 people came from Saudi Arabia and planned the attack in Spain and the US.

    July 9, 2011 at 12:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Thomas

    The VA is saying I have TBI, I don't think I do but then again I'm not a doctor. I've done that "blood house" before. It's really not all that traumatic to be honest. I thought it was really intense and rather real. Anyways back to the VA, they're doing they're best to help veterans who left active service and has multiple studies going on right now to help the veterans with TBI.

    July 9, 2011 at 14:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Tracy

    You people need to seriously chill. I grew up military and have endless friends and family in the service. Stop your moaning and go clean the toilet.

    July 9, 2011 at 16:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. 2bits

    Bama brains needs more than CPR for brains. He needs a complete transplant.

    July 9, 2011 at 16:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. JehseaLynn

    @TRACY – You need a COMPASSION injection. I have suffered with a TBI for 11 years now. A former law school grad, top fundraiser and grantwriter for youth at-risk and high-powered executive, I now live on Disability because, after 5 years in Cognitive Retraining, "they had done all they could" after a 33-ton lumber truck rear-ended me at VERY high speed. I lost my career, my big, fat salary, my status, my home, my car, my best friend-my smarts- my ability to multi-task, organize, even alphabetize. OH, AND MY PERSONALITY CHANGED SO MUCH MY DAUGHTER WALKED OUT ON ME. THANK GOD MY SON DID NOT. So, Tracy, I think of suicide AT LEAST 20 times a day, and TBI is NO LAUGHING MATTER. So if you're too stupid to get on your knees and thank God or WHATEVER that YOU still have a pristine brain, I will gladly do it for you.

    July 9, 2011 at 18:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Shane

      JehsealLynn, very well said. I too have a brain injury but I don't think it has been addressed. I suffered trauma 5 years ago when my daughter was shot in the head and I had to have her life support removed. I secluded myself, had some sort of mental breakdown, lost my job, immediate family and everything I loved in life. My question is, can this type of therapy help someone with an injury which is not from a physical trauma? I am sure there are others out there like me. I do not want to be high on medication. And yes, I support our troops in any way I can. they help keep my right to be here today.

      July 10, 2011 at 08:12 | Report abuse |
    • Bewareyoumaybedisablednext

      My God...you said it so well. I know what you are saying. I had a stroke and, yep, my "friends" "work empoyees" my daughters left me in the mud and I cannot even see my grandchildren, and I hear there is a great granddaughter. Oh, they were all "Christians" and prayed for me, until I couldn't pay for all their bills, buy them whatever they want, go out to eat. Hurt? Yes it hurts. I feel sorry for anyone in this mess. I lost my job, school, friends, Please try to hold on. I know what you mean about Suicide, but that is not the answer. Pray, pray, pray, tomorrow may be another good day.

      July 10, 2011 at 11:21 | Report abuse |
    • Elizabeth

      I feel for all people with such problems. My daughter had learning disabilities which followed her through school to now. She never had the house, the car, etc. She could not remember information for tests, until six months after she had heard it, so she did well on college entrance exams, but failed courses. And of course, college didn't work. I hope that all of America starts to have some compassion for people with these difficulties; in a recession or depression it is hardest for the "slightly" disabled to find jobs. Prayer does help, because you realize that it doesn't matter what other people think, there is still something wonderful about life; and sometimes prayer also helps you make connections in your thinking.

      July 10, 2011 at 15:14 | Report abuse |
  14. k

    I hope that people who are nonmilitary and have TBI can get these types of programs soon. My aunt, a single mother, has TBI after a major seizure a couple of years ago. Fingers crossed these prgrams will be able to help many other people very very soon.

    July 10, 2011 at 02:21 | Report abuse | Reply
    • sam mason

      Again please read the book listed, "The Brain That Changes Itself", by Norman Doidge, M.D

      July 10, 2011 at 08:09 | Report abuse |
  15. Haydee geronimo

    Can this treatment be applied to adhd or autistic kids?

    July 10, 2011 at 04:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • sam mason

      read the book, "The Brain That Changes Itself", by Norman Doidge, M.D

      July 10, 2011 at 08:08 | Report abuse |
  16. sam mason

    You make this mending the mind to sound like it's new stuff. The research, that was done by Dr. Michael Merzenich and those before him, shows how the brain has a plasticity to it when dealing with many things form nerve damage, amputations, learning disabilities and so many more. The idea that what doctors are doing to help military men with training the brain, has been around for years and developed in the labs, some around one hundred years ago. You need to read the book, "The Brain That Changes Itself", by Norman Doidge, M.D. There also has been a story on PBS called "The Brain Fitness Program". This is not something new but appears to have been developed from the research done.

    July 10, 2011 at 08:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Vichara

    There are other ways to heal the entire self, including the brain. At very deep levels, beyond the roots of human understanding and very gentle. Be careful meeting violence with violence in therapy, especially to then be sent right back to the scene of the injury. The organism is extraordinary, was originally built to heal naturally... experts have been practicing meditative studies for centuries and teaching. Sail right past any religious dogma to the essence of your being; Vichara means to question. Choose awareness.

    July 10, 2011 at 08:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. JehseaLynn

    SHANE, God rest your lovely daughter. I once read a biography of a survivor of WWI, which had VERY high casualties because they did not even know how to transfuse blood then. And a reporter asked this 19 year-old survivor how he would live, having seen such death. He replied, "I am going to live joyous and true, for all those young ones who never got a chance to,". And Shane, that is what I wish for you. Please get some counseling it helps the kind of injury you have. I wish you peace! Personally, it is hard to keep living with nothing left. I gave up on God because I do not believe in a punishing, hate-delivering God. I only plod from one day to the next because it would hurt my son. But then he tells me "it has been the most terrible thing to watch you go through this," so maybe it would free him at last, too.

    July 10, 2011 at 14:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. the doctor

    They should have got degrees in college, not scars in wars.

    July 10, 2011 at 18:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. achmed fubar

    @ "the doctor" Some of us didn't have that option. I got my degree in the Military because I couldn't afford it in the Civ world. Trust me they aren't free, there is a chore you must do for payback and it's very dangerous. In my case the cost was 11yrs of my life.

    @ Tracy A hardy FYVM! I doubt you would make it thru boot, much less a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan. I hope your legs grow together so we can come see you balance a ball on your nose at the zoo. Then we can throw fish at you. F'n Troll!

    July 10, 2011 at 19:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. j ray

    God bless those doctors that help the servicemen/women. Having had a stroke, I know how it is to lose memory and the ability to do those physical activities I used to do. The puzzles and physical activities DO help with regaining my memory though.

    July 10, 2011 at 21:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Petercha

    A very big THANK YOU from this civilian to all those in our armed forces. You are greatly appreciated.

    July 11, 2011 at 09:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. pacman357

    What is the point of including the heavy metal? I haven't heard of insurgents using it. Last I heard it being used as a battle tactic was when the U.S. was trying to capture Noriega. I'm not defending the genre, I'm generally curious. Being a fan, I have to think it wouldn't bother me, at least not by itself, whereas I recognize that others could find it pretty jarring.

    July 11, 2011 at 13:33 | Report abuse | Reply
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