The Behavioral Science Division conducts research on assessment, post-deployment psychology, psychophysiology, and epidemiology. Staff also conducts basic research, clinical trials, and other treatment research.
The Division is involved in several large prospective cohort studies. In one such effort, researchers are developing a registry of combat-exposed men and women who have become users of VA services since 2002. Funded by the Department of Defense (DoD), the project aims to provide essential information about the history and outcomes associated with PTSD to supplement information collected through the VA electronic medical record.
The Neurocognition Deployment Health Study has entered its most recent wave of data collection. Military personnel participating in this study were assessed before deployment to Iraq and at several intervals afterward, making it the first prospective longitudinal study ever conducted on the psychological impact of war zone stress. The current wave of data collection continues the long-term examination of
PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and neuropsychological functioning while beginning to examine health-related quality of life and occupational functioning.
DoD and VA are jointly funding another study of biological, genetic, psychological, neuropsychological, psychiatric, and social outcomes in a cohort of approximately 1,600 Marines. This effort involves four waves of data collection, the first of which was completed prior to deployment. Data collection is complete for the first three cohorts of Marines.
The Division continues to conduct innovative research on treatments for PTSD. A small efficacy study involving OEF/OIF Veterans is testing the medication D-cycloserine to augment brief exposure therapy. Two studies are evaluating the efficacy of a self-managed, therapist-monitored stress reduction regimen provided via primary care called DESTRESS.
Both Internet-based and telephone-based treatment delivery formats are being evaluated for use with recent OEF/OIF returnees. The aim is to appeal to individuals who are reluctant to seek help through regular mental health channels. Other efforts are aimed at developing and testing low-cost interventions that make use of technology, require less professional staff time, and/or are easier for patients to complete.
Pilot studies of mindfulness meditation delivered via telehealth and a brief, exposure-based treatment for PTSD developed by Division staff showed promising results and planning is underway for further evaluations of both interventions.
The Division has several projects that address the relationship between PTSD and aging, a research priority of the National Center. Division staff are collaborating with investigators at VA Boston Healthcare system to study the effects of exposure to traumatic events and other stressors on mental and physical health among aging military Veterans. Another, newly funded, project aims to organize and make available existing longitudinal data sets that can be used to address research questions about the impact of trauma on the course of aging. A national, multidisciplinary group of experts will advise this effort and launch the research agenda.
Work continues on a multi-site, five-year, prospective, longitudinal study of 400 civilian firefighters that samples both Veterans and non-Veterans. The primary aim is to identify risk and resilience factors related to the development of PTSD, substance abuse, and social and occupational functioning. The findings are expected to have relevance to Veterans who have recent exposure to traumatic stress.
One of the top priorities of the National Center is understanding of the effects of traumatic brain injury (TBI) and trauma during military service in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Division is conducting a major study of PTSD and brain structure in OEF/OIF Veterans who experienced blast-related TBI during their service. The research aims to better understand the contribution of blast-related TBI and psychiatric co-morbidities to the cognitive and functional deficits seen in personnel with blast injury.
Research on genetics is also prominent at the Behavioral Science Division and includes a project examining genetic influences on conflict behavior that occurs within intimate relationships involving combat Veterans and their partners. A related study is examining specific candidate genes in individuals with PTSD to evaluate whether these genes might, either on their own or in concert with environmental stressors, affect PTSD severity and presence of comorbid mental health conditions.
Basic research in the area of behavioral science is examining malleable cognitive-affective mechanisms (e.g., distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and mindfulness) that are associated with the development and maintenance of PTSD, as well as substance use disorders that often co-occur with PTSD.
The Division is involved in a study led by the Nashville and Palo Alto VA Medical Centers that addresses the compensation and pension examination for military-related PTSD. This study aims to determine the feasibility and efficacy of standardized measures in determining compensation, particularly for PTSD-related functional impairment.
Several projects are underway to examine mediators and moderators of the link between PTSD and intimate partner aggression in military populations, particularly OEF/OIF families. Related efforts are devoted to developing interventions to prevent and treat partner aggression in couples and families of military service members and Veterans.