It’s well known that many soldiers coming back after a deployment aren’t always the same person they were when they left.
The soldier may leave for deployment completely healthy both physically and mentally. Yet after exposure to combat, war, enemy fire, and seeing their fellow soldiers and civilians wounded or dead; The stress takes a toll on the brain. The stress a soldier undergoes during their time in combat affects their attention deficit and memory retention. After only one four month deployment their ability to stay focused decreases significantly. However, the good news is those effects tend to subside over time. This means shorter rotations and longer leaves between combat deployments may significantly benefit both combat performance and overall mental health and wellbeing of the soldier.
Research on the matter was done at the University of Amsterdam by Professor Guido van Wingen. He conducted brain scans of soldiers about to deploy and those still in training. The soldiers preformed lab tests that consisted of memory simulations requiring the subject to retain specific numbers in their mind. There was no difference in all 33 soldiers about to be deployed and the 26 still in training. The same was true for similar concentration tests.
However, this all changed once the soldiers experienced combat. Those soldiers who came back from combat were retested. The same memory retention tests were performed after combat. The results showed lower midbrain activity, a region of the brain involved in working memory. The impacts didn’t stop there, the midbrain tissues connected to the prefrontal cortex showed signs of damage and weakened connections. This sort of change has an effect on both the working memory and attention of a human being.
The soldiers showed signs of attention deficit challenges when required to quickly and accurately identify groups of dots.
Soldiers made more errors and these errors corresponded with brain scans. The greater the brain change during combat, the worse the soldier’s performance was.
Fortunately the effects on the brain weren’t shown to be permanent. A year and a half after these tests were performed, the soldiers were not redeployed and were subsequently retested. All but one subject’s results reverted back to what they originally were before deployment. “The brain was able to recover from the adverse effects of stress,” van Wingen said.
The synaptic strength between the midbrain and prefrontal cortex, however, did not revert to their original values. It’s not entirely clear what this means, though it’s speculated that it may render a person more susceptible to future stressors. Thus increasing the likely-hood of reversion to poor attention deficit and memory retention.
In summary, the findings of Dr. Guido van Wingen indicate that shorter deployments and more frequent rotations along with increased leave for soldiers could help the brain recover from the stresses of combat. This could lead to a more productive military with less incidence of stress induced illnesses. These studies warrant further investigation and you may rest assured we will be following them at SciFighting.