Research urged on brain injury, epilepsy link
By Rick Maze - Staff writer
Posted : Wednesday Aug 8, 2007 9:56:13 EDT

Two senators who don’t agree on much in politics have agreed on one thing: the federal government needs to study a possible link between traumatic brain injury and epilepsy.

Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, are co-sponsoring legislation to establish six epilepsy research and treatment centers across the U.S. The location of the “centers of excellence” would be determined by the Veterans Affairs Department.

Murray is one of the more liberal members of the Senate and Craig is one of its most conservative, but they made a joint announcement Monday of a plan to set aside $6 million a year for centers of research, treatment and education programs related to the incidence of epilepsy in current and future veterans.

Craig, the former Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman and now its senior Republican member, said there has been no evidence yet to show that brain injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are resulting in epilepsy. But about half of Vietnam veterans who had penetrating brain injuries suffered from post-traumatic epilepsy, he said.

VA research, conducted in collaboration with the Pentagon, found that 53 percent of Vietnam veterans with penetrating head wounds developed epilepsy within 15 years and that about half had a seizure within the first year of receiving their head wound. Other research, not directly related to the military, has shown that in cases where the brain is not penetrated, such as from the concussion of roadside bombs widely used in Iraq against U.S. troops and convoys, the onset of seizures can be delayed for two years or more.

Murray, a veterans’ committee member who is involved in the Senate Democratic leadership, said VA needs to know more.

“As we have seen with conflicts ranging from World War I to Vietnam, and even the first Gulf War, many injuries associated with military service can take months, years or even decades to develop,” Murray said. “When dealing with severe brain trauma, it is important that the VA learn as much as possible about the signs and impacts of these devastating injuries.”

Dr. John Booss, VA national director of neurology and a Yale University professor emeritus of neurology, told the Senate committee in May that post-traumatic epilepsy will be “a significant long-term consequence” of the brain injuries suffered by U.S. combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Booss, an Air Force veteran testifying on behalf of the American Academy of Neurology, endorsed the idea of creating specialized VA research and treatment centers.

“We are concerned that the VA lacks a national program for epilepsy with clear guidelines on when to refer patients for further assessment and treatment of epilepsy,” Booss said.

The Murray-Craig bill, which will not be formally introduced until after Labor Day, is not the only legislation aimed at treating epilepsy in veterans. Earlier this year, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, introduced a bill concentrating on treatment for traumatic brain injuries. It included expanding research into seizure disorders along with proposing a pilot program for providing assisted living for veterans with traumatic brain injuries and rehabilitation programs to help veterans with brain injuries become reintegrated into the civilian life.

Craig is also a co-sponsor of Akaka’s bill, S 1233.