Traumatic brain injuries are linked to higher suicide rates. One non-profit seeks better treatments — and a louder conversation.
Magali Haas, M.D., Ph.D.
President and CEO, Cohen Veterans Bioscience
“We needed more coordination of efforts. That’s why I founded Cohen Veterans Bioscience.”
Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are often called the “invisible epidemic.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year 2.87 million Americans experience a TBI, and about 5.3 million are living with a TBI-related disability. And yet it receives relatively little attention.
“TBI represents a condition where there’s damage to the brain resulting from an external force,” explained Magali Haas, M.D., Ph.D., president and CEO of Cohen Veterans Bioscience. “That can include rapid acceleration or deceleration, direct impact of a blast wave, penetration by a projectile like a gunshot — anything that can cause physical damage to the brain.”
The impact of TBIs
What makes tackling the TBI epidemic so crucial is the downstream impact of these injuries. Although anyone can suffer a TBI, it’s especially prevalent in the military.
“There’s an epidemic of suicide in the military,” Dr. Haas noted. “And a history of TBI or PTSD has been shown to be associated with a substantially increased likelihood of suicide attempts compared to those without the diagnosis — 1.5 and 2.8, respectively.”
That made the issue personal for her. “My husband is a veteran, and my sister is serving right now as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force,” she explained. “We needed more coordination of efforts. That’s why I founded Cohen Veterans Bioscience. As a foundation, we can serve this neutral role bringing together industry, government, and academic partners.”
Incredibly, there are only seven TBI diagnostics approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and those are all classified as an “aid in diagnostic,” meaning it doesn’t definitively diagnose the condition, it only helps it rule in or rule out.
“There are no FDA-approved treatments for traumatic brain injury at all,” Dr. Haas noted. “And the pipeline for new therapeutics is lacking.”
Cohen Veterans Bioscience’s mission is to fast-track these diagnostics and therapeutics, and bring research forward into the clinical practice. They focus on three main areas of TBI-related research: digital health, computational modeling, and biomarkers.
“We’re focusing on biomarkers because that’s the way that we’re going to figure out those different types of TBI and understand the disease progression,” Haas said. “That’s going to help us identify where we need to target interventions.”
Research into biomarkers offers many different approaches, including neuroimaging, electroencephalography (EEG) tools that record the brain’s neural activity, blood-based biomarkers including inflammation markers, and genetic tests. Cohen Veterans Bioscience is also exploring the link between PTSD, TBI, and sleep disruptions by tracking digital signatures gathered via wearables.
TBI is an issue that affects almost everyone in some way. “Many people will experience a traumatic brain injury in their lifetime — most of us have hit our head,” Haas said. “The question is whether or not that results in any enduring effect, because a TBI represents something where there’s not just acute injury, but also potentially chronic injury, which is where we see the long-term impact.”
Haas encourages people to get involved. Cohen Veterans Bioscience has spearheaded the TBI Action Alliance to bring together different partners invested in the TBI space to raise awareness and advocate for TBI-related research.
“People can join the alliance as individuals,” she noted. “They can become members — that’s free. Then they get access to information about TBI, learn about the latest scientific advancements, and volunteer for and participate in research.”
People can go further and directly support research into TBI diagnostics and treatments. “We appreciate donations,” Haas said. “The research and projects need funding support to accelerate them. Anything we can do to augment those efforts really drives things forward and catalyzes the research to be done sooner.”
 Mackelprang JL, Bombardier CH, Fann JR, Temkin NR, Barber JK, Dikmen SS. Rates and predictors of suicidal ideation during the first year after traumatic brain injury. Am J Public Health. 2014;104(7):e100-e107. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2013.301794