By Noah Shachtman
Source: Wired Blog
The military is scrambling for new ways to treat the brain injuries and post-traumatic stress of troops returning home from war.
And every kind of therapy -- no matter how far outside the accepted medical form -- is being considered. The Army just unveiled a $4 million program to investigate everything from "spiritual ministry, transcendental meditation, [and] yoga" to "bioenergies such as Qi gong, Reiki, [and] distant healing" to mend the psyches of wounded troops.
As many as 17 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, one congressional study estimates. Nearly 3,300 troops have suffered traumatic brain injury, or TBI, according to statistics assembled last summer. And the lifetime costs of treating these ailments could pile up to as much as $35 billion, a Columbia University report guesses.
Small wonder, then, that the government is looking for alternate means to treat these injuries. The Defense Department "is dedicated to supporting evidence-based approaches to medical treatment and wants to support the use of alternative therapies if they are proven efficacious," notes a recently-issued request for proposals.
But many of these treatments haven't been held up to much rigorous scientific scrutiny before. So the Army is looking to hand out $4 million in "seedling grants" to "conduc[t] rigorous clinical studies" into all sorts of "novel approaches." Projects "containing preliminary data" will be eligible for up to $1 million. But even "innovative but testable hypotheses without preliminary data" could get as much as $300,000. Proposals are due May 15.
"Music, animal-facilitated therapy, art, dance/movement, massage therapy, EMDR [Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing] program evaluation, virtual reality, acupuncture, spiritual ministry, transcendental meditation, [and] yoga," might all be considered worth of the military's largess. So would "biologically-based treatments, botanicals, and nutritional supplements for enhancing cognitive function and mood in patients with trauma spectrum disorders, including TBI and/or PTSD, depression, anxiety, and/or substance dependence/abuse." Even proposals for wild-sounding "therapies using bioenergies such as Qi gong, Reiki, distant healing and acupuncture" would be accepted.
The program also wants to investigate the "perceptions" of these treatments, and any "gender-specific implications and issues" involved. All "proposals must provide a clear justification and military relevance for the choice of therapies selected," the Army reminds grant applicants.
This isn't the first time the military has investigated these sorts of nontraditional approaches. The semi-legendary "First Earth Battalion," immortalized in The Men Who Stare at Goats, advocated that soldiers utilize everything from "yogic cat stretch[es]" to "Ginseng tab regulator[s]" to "amphetamines." A 1973 RAND Corporation study, put together for Darpa, lamented Soviet advances over the American military in everything from yoga to telekinesis. More recently, Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., inserted $2 million into last year's defense budget bill for "research into the effects of prayer." Darpa has invested millions into natural dietary supplements. Troops -- even flag-level officers -- have been known to do yoga on their own.
And while some of these techniques seem way out there -- I mean way, way out there -- others may have a more practical effect on psychiatric health. Yoga, for instance, has been shown to improve the mood of psychiatric inpatients and reduce so-called "stress hormones" like cortisol. After promising early results, planning is underway for a major study into the effects of yoga on the treatment of schizophrenia. Full disclosure: The doctor running that study is my wife, Elizabeth. But she's not planning to take any Army money