Afghan Soldier Likely Took a Brain Test Riddled with Problems

By Wire News Sources on March 20, 2012

by Lena Groeger

The aftermath of last week’s killing of 16 Afghans has
prompted a flurry of speculation into the mind of 38-year old U.S. combat staff sergeant Robert
Bales. In particular, the injuries to it.

Traumatic brain injuries are so
common among today’s troops
that the military has spent over million
for a test to detect them, a test that Bales
most likely took before his final deployment to Afghanistan
. The problem
is, that test has failed miserably.

More than a million soldiers have taken the 20
minute computerized test, known as the Automated Neuropsychological Assessment Metrics, or ANAM
test. But as we
reported last year in a ProPublica investigation
, the
test has been heavily criticized as an ineffective tool to detect brain

Many news outlets, including the
New York Times
, have cited military officials saying Bales was treated for a traumatic
brain injury
during his past deployments in Iraq. Bales was reportedly
injured in Iraq when his vehicle rolled over. The Army Medical Command would
not comment on any specifics of Bales’ medical history or testing, but spokeswoman
Maria Tolleson said that Joint Base Lewis McChord, where Bales was stationed,
was fully operational with the ANAM testing program.

“It would be expected that a deploying
Army service member from that base would have a pre-deployment cognitive
baseline completed,” said Tolleson.

Problems have plagued the test since its
introduction. Critics charge the military chose the test through a biased
selection process
and then ignored years of warnings that the test was
fraught with problems. They also say the military has not administered the test

are meant to take the test twice – once before deployment and then again
after a suspected head injury. Soldiers must answer a series of questions that
score basic thinking abilities such as reaction time, short-term memory and learning speed. In
theory, the initial test serves as a baseline to compare the results of the
second test; a discrepancy signals a possible injury and the need for more

But the test – which a former Army surgeon
general has called no
better than a “coin flip”
– is rarely implemented that way.
The Army was so unconvinced of the test’s accuracy that it issued
an order
not to
send soldiers with a troublesome score for further medical evaluation.

While there is no scientific consensus on the best
test for traumatic brain injuries, alternatives do exist. Both the Army Special
Forces and the National Hockey League chose a different test, called ImPact. Researchers
are also developing new
to detect brain injuries, but right now the ANAM
test remains the prime military TBI test.

The precise nature of Robert Bales’ brain injuries
and subsequent testing is one issue, but linking his injuries to his outburst
of violence is another matter altogether.

Scientists have not established any clear-cut
connection between traumatic brain injures and later violence. This
article from Wired
explores some of the most recent studies on the
topic, while the Los Angeles
Times breaks down
the many interacting factors that make drawing a
clear line from injury to violence nearly impossible.

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