Diffuse and spatially variable white matter disruptions are associated with blast-related mild traumatic brain injury

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Mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) due to explosive blast is common among military service members and often associated with long term psychological and cognitive disruptions. Little is known about the neurological effects of blast-related mTBI and whether they differ from those of civilian, non-blast mTBI. Given that brain damage from blasts may be diffuse and heterogeneous, we tested the hypothesis that blast mTBI is associated with subtle white matter disruptions in the brain that are spatially inconsistent across individuals. We used diffusion tensor imaging to examine white matter integrity, as quantified by fractional anisotropy (FA), in a group of American military service members with (n = 25) or without (n = 33) blast-related mTBI who had been deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom. History of civilian non-blast mTBI was equally common across groups, which enabled testing of both blast and non-blast mTBI effects on measures sensitive to (1) concentrated, spatially consistent (average FA within a region of interest [ROI]), (2) concentrated, spatially variable (number of ROIs with low average FA), and (3) diffuse (number of voxels with low FA) disruptions of white matter integrity. Blast mTBI was associated with a diffuse, global pattern of lower white matter integrity, and this pattern was not affected by previous civilian mTBI. Neither type of mTBI had an effect on the measures sensitive to more concentrated and spatially consistent white matter disruptions. Additionally, individuals with more than one blast mTBI tended to have a larger number of low FA voxels than individuals with a single blast injury. These results indicate that blast mTBI is associated with disrupted integrity of several white matter tracts, and that these disruptions are diluted by averaging across the large number of voxels within an ROI. The reported pattern of effects supports the conclusion that the neurological effects of blast mTBI are diffuse, widespread, and spatially variable.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2017-2024
Number of pages8
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 1 2012

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by grants from the Minnesota Veterans Research Institute (MVRI) and the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program ( W81XWH-08-2-0038 ) to Scott R. Sponheim. We are grateful to Nikki Fraser for assistance with acquisition of imaging data; Molly J. Charlesworth for efforts with recruitment and clinical assessment; and Amanda Ferrier-Auerbach, Nathaniel W. Nelson, James Hoelzle, and Kathryn A. McGuire for efforts characterizing the head injuries of participants.


  • Blast
  • Diffusion tensor imaging
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • White matter


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