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Politics Armed Forces to invest in brain-imaging scanner to study PTSD

Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr says the Armed Forces will spend $2.65-million over the next four years for access to the Royal Ottawa Hospital’s new PET-fMRI scanner.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Department of National Defence will use a state-of-the-art medical imaging machine recently acquired by an Ottawa hospital to study the ways brains are altered by mental disorders, including depression and PTSD, that are associated with military service.

Kent Hehr, the Minister of Veterans Affairs, announced on Monday that the Armed Forces will spend $2.65-million over the next four years for access to the Royal Ottawa Hospital's new PET-fMRI scanner – the only one of its kind in Canada that is devoted entirely to brain and mental-health research.

The investment comes as the scope of mental-health challenges associated with military service, particularly for soldiers who have been deployed on combat missions, is becoming widely known. Nearly one in 10 of the Canadian military personnel who took part in the war in Afghanistan are now collecting disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder, and a Globe and Mail investigation has found that at least 62 soldiers and veterans have taken their lives since returning from deployment to that country.

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"We know that the mental health issues in our military are real and present challenges to the men and women who serve, and their families," Mr. Hehr told the small crowd of hospital and military personnel who gathered to hear the announcement in a hospital atrium.

The $8-million PET-fMRI scanner was installed last week after a lengthy community fundraising campaign.

The additional money announced by the federal government will allow the military to conduct its own research into the ways the brains of soldiers and veterans change when they are affected by mental illness. Colonel Rakesh Jetly, the chief psychiatrist for the Canadian Forces and NATO's first chair in mental health, will oversee the studies in collaboration with the hospital experts.

Georg Northoff, a philosopher, neuroscientist and psychiatrist who is the Canada Research Chair in Mind, Brain Imaging and Neuroethics, said the scanner will look at neuronal electrical activity as well as the bio-chemical reactions within the brains of people with mental disorders. "The beauty of this machine is that you can measure them simultaneously," Dr. Northoff said.

The brains of people suffering from mental issues light up differently than those of the healthy population, but the images of the traumas do not look the same from one patient to the next, he said. The research will allow doctors to test which treatments are effective and to tailor them to the individual.

Soldiers and veterans are expected to be among those who will reap the most benefit from the findings.

"PTSD is such a major issue within the military," Dr. Northoff said. "It is starting to be recognized more and more, and this is a long-term project."

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General Jonathan Vance, the Chief of Defence Staff, said the brain-imaging research that will be conducted on the PET-fMRI scanner will be a "game-changer" in how the medical community approaches illnesses such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Through access to this incredible technology, we will gain a better understanding of what is happening in the brain of those who are suffering from these psychological injuries," Gen. Vance said.

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