May 10, 2015
David Hay was almost out of ammunition when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded in the turret of his Centurion tank in the rubber plantation village of Binh Ba, Vietnam, spraying shrapnel into the 21-year-old radio operator’s body.
That was 46 years ago, and while the flesh-wounds healed within weeks, Hay had nightmares and bouts of depression for decades. Now, he and hundreds of other Vietnam veterans are helping doctors try to trace pathways in the brain that may connect the trauma he suffered with the development later in life of one of the world’s fastest-growing and most debilitating diseases: Alzheimer’s.
For decades, dementia-causing conditions like Alzheimer’s were a mystery, illnesses that couldn’t be diagnosed for sure except at post-mortem. The development of advanced PET scans, combined with new tracer dyes means that doctors can now follow subtle biological routes in the brain and spinal fluid. That could explain how and why physical and psychological wartime traumas can double the risk of such conditions.