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Combat stress can cause persistent attention problems

September 7, 2009 |  1:00 pm

Iraq Soldiers who spend months in combat situations are known to have cognitive changes when they return home. They tend to respond to dangers quicker and have some trouble with skills related to attention, learning and memory. A study published today shows those deficits can still be measured one year after returning from Iraq.

Researchers studied 268 men and women who served in Iraq between 2003 and 2006. They were given neuropsychological tests before and after deployment. One group was assessed immediately after their return and again in one year. Another group was assessed before deployment and then 122 days after returning. The study found that soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder had poorer attention at the one-year mark, but this link was not found in soldiers who recently returned from deployment.

The study provides more evidence that the psychological wounds of war may persist and appear in various manifestations over time.

 "Our finding indicating that the relationship between PTSD and attentional impairment is minimal early on but strengthens over time is consistent with previous research," the authors wrote. The study also demonstrates "that psychiatric symptoms often reflect more extensive biological changes, including those affecting brain function."

The study was performed by researchers at Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System and Boston University. It is published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Petr David Josek  /  AP