RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Today in Your Health, we hear about military battles and brain injuries - and how a call for help turned into groundbreaking science. It's the story of a Harvard biophysicist named Kit Parker. He set out to help an Army buddy who'd returned from Iraq with a brain injury. NPR's Jon Hamilton tells us how the biophysicist went on to make a discovery that could affect hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops.
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Kit Parker never expected to study the brain. As a young scientist, he focused on heart disease. Then, after 9/11, he paused his academic career to serve as an Army officer, patrolling the mountainous regions of Afghanistan. Parker left the battlefield in 2003 to join the faculty at Harvard. And when he started his new job, he created a firewall between his life as a soldier and his life as a scientist.
KIT PARKER: I didn't want to be known as the veteran on campus. You know, I wanted to earn my bones as a scientist. I didn't want to be special. I wanted to be good.
HAMILTON: Parker didn't exactly blend in at Harvard. He's nearly 6-feet-6. He's got a shaved head, and he tends to bark orders at the post-docs in his lab. But for three years, Parker was able to set aside military concerns. Instead, he focused on his scientific specialty, heart cells and conditions that disrupt the heart's normal rhythm. Then, in early 2006, Parker's cell phone rang.
PARKER: I got a call from Chris Moroski.
HAMILTON: An Army buddy.
PARKER: We hadn't seen or talked to each other in two years. And all of a sudden, I got a call out of the blue from him.
HAMILTON: Parker and Moroski had jumped out of airplanes together as paratroopers in the National Guard. In 2005, Moroski had deployed to Iraq. Now he was calling from a military hospital in Georgia. And he kept calling.
PARKER: And our conversations were a little bit hard because he couldn't remember stuff or lose his train of thought during the course of a conversation. So I guess it's like a third or fourth call, I asked him. I said Chris, did you get your Purple Heart in theater or when you got back? And he couldn't remember. That's when I realized - something's wrong here. He's calling me, and he can't remember his Purple Heart. Something is wrong.
HAMILTON: The problem was Moroski's brain. He'd been on patrol near Ramadi when an improvised explosive device blew up his armored vehicle. The armor protected Moroski from the heat and shrapnel, but not from the IED's blast wave. Moroski says it slammed into his head like a giant, invisible fist.
CHRIS MOROSKI: I was vomiting for a couple of days after that. You know, I had some real difficulty with my vision. I would go days without sleeping. And then when I would fall asleep, I would only be able to remain asleep for, like, an hour or two at a time.
HAMILTON: Moroski had sustained the signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a concussion, or a so-called mild traumatic brain injury, caused by a blast wave. Hundreds of thousands of service members got hit in the same way. But Moroski says military doctors didn't think these blasts were causing physical damage to the brain.
MOROSKI: At the time, head injuries weren't really a thing.
HAMILTON: The doctors assumed he was having a psychological reaction to the stress of combat. Eventually, Moroski got sent to the army medical center in Fort Gordon, Ga. He was supposed to recuperate. But he spent months there, including one lonely Christmas.
MOROSKI: It was like New Year's Eve 2005. I'm in the hospital. The heat's off, and I felt very alone. That was tough. You know, that was a tough one.
HAMILTON: That's when Moroski started calling Kit Parker. And after one of those calls, Parker made a decision.
PARKER: And I hung up and I was staring at the corner of the den, and I had this realization - I've got to get in this. My buddy needs help. I don't know what to do. I'm going to have to get involved in the science.
HAMILTON: So Parker did two things - he got out of Georgia and into Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Then, he knocked down the wall that had separated his science from his soldiering.
PARKER: It was clear then that I was going to introduce to people my lab to my other life as a soldier.
HAMILTON: In some ways, it was a crazy idea for Parker to take on traumatic brain injury. He knew about heart cells, not brain cells. On the other hand, he was a soldier, so he knew about explosives. And he was a biophysicist, so he knew what happens when a blast wave hits someone's head.
PARKER: Next time you make Jell-O, thump it. Just thump the Jell-O, and watch it wiggle. That's what happens when your head impacts something or a blast wave comes by and your brain slams up against the inside your skull.
HAMILTON: Parker began to suspect that the conventional wisdom about blast wave concussions was wrong. Doctors thought that long-term damage occurred only when a blast was strong enough to kill brain cells. But Parker knew that a heart can be stopped cold by an apparently insignificant blow to the chest.
PARKER: A hockey puck hits someone, and they go down - sudden cardiac death. Just a single blow to the heart causes an electrical irregularity, and they could die.
HAMILTON: And Parker's research had shown that the impact causes special proteins in heart cells to transmit signals that disable the entire organ. So he began searching the scientific literature for evidence that something similar might be happening in the brain. He found nothing.
PARKER: And this went on for, like, a couple weeks. And I'm like - how did they miss this? Surely, I'm not smart enough to realize something (laughter) nobody else has realized.
HAMILTON: But Parker began to think he was on to something. Maybe IEDs were affecting the special proteins in brain cells. And maybe these proteins were sending abnormal signals that disabled networks in the brain. To find out, Parker would need a way to simulate a bomb blast in his lab.
PARKER: I didn't have any grant money. But I had a undergraduate named Borna Dabiri - guy could get it done. (Laughter) So I asked him to meet me at a Starbucks one morning for coffee.
BORNA DABIRI: I think it was probably close to 6 a.m. or something like that.
PARKER: And I said listen, I need you to devote your senior thesis to building a gadget that will mimic a IED blast.
DABIRI: We mapped out this plan on basically a few, like, Starbuck (ph) napkins.
HAMILTON: And within a couple of months, it was ready to go.
Next week, we pick up Parker's story as he takes Borna Dabiri's gadget to one of the military's leading experts on battlefield brain injury.
PARKER: And I said I'm not bring this thing back. I'm going to leave it there. I'm going to make him think of me every day until he funds me.
HAMILTON: Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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