Health & Fitness

KU researchers have Fort Riley soldiers run miles to save their brains

Soldiers at Fort Riley are participating in research led by University of Kansas scientists who are trying to see if running helps to heal mild traumatic brain injuries.
Soldiers at Fort Riley are participating in research led by University of Kansas scientists who are trying to see if running helps to heal mild traumatic brain injuries.

More than a hundred Fort Riley soldiers have been drafted to help University of Kansas researchers probe the effects of intense exercise on wounded warriors with mild traumatic brain injury.

Traumatic brain injury is “by far” the most common brain injury, said David Johnson, who is leading the research team in a two-year study. “There’s a lot of soldiers with pretty significant problems.”

Improvised explosive devices and associated blast injuries have left more than 350,000 U.S. service members in Iraq and Afghanistan with an invisible wound: traumatic brain injury, according to data from the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center.

Johnson, who directs the Neuropsychology and Aging Laboratory and serves as the director of neuropsychological assessment at the KU Alzheimer’s Disease Center, said traumatic brain injury and Alzheimer’s disease share common symptoms — memory and thinking problems, but also depression and anxiety.

The clinical trials will assess intensive cardiorespiratory exercise as a way to help wounded warriors recover from mild traumatic brain injury. Johnson’s premise is — and earlier research has supported the science — that aerobic exercise helps the brain heal itself.

All the soldiers participating in the study have experienced some exposure to major explosion, the kind of rattling that could be associated with causing some injury to the brain, whether it is immediate or pops up years later.

“Instead of lifting weights, we want the soldiers running more to improve their aerobic capacity,” Johnson said in a news release Friday. “They’ll do rowing machines and bikes to relieve boredom — but ultimately they’ll become runners. We’re trying to get them to run more miles more quickly.”

The aim of the research, which is supported by $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Defense, is to help improve soldiers’ quality of life.

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc

  Comments