Objective: Use diffusion tensor imaging to investigate white matter alterations associated with blast exposure with or without acute symptoms of traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Participants: Forty-five veterans of the recent military conflicts included 23 exposed to primary blast without TBI symptoms, 6 having primary blast with mild TBI, and 16 unexposed to blast.
Design: Cross-sectional case-control study.
Main measures: Neuropsychological testing and diffusion tensor imaging metrics that quantified the number of voxel clusters with altered fractional anisotropy (FA) radial diffusivity, and axial diffusivity, regardless of their spatial location.
Results: Significantly lower FA and higher radial diffusivity were observed in veterans exposed to primary blast with and without mild TBI relative to blast-unexposed veterans. Voxel clusters of lower FA were spatially dispersed and heterogeneous across affected individuals.
Conclusion: These results suggest that lack of clear TBI symptoms following primary blast exposure may not accurately reflect the extent of brain injury. If confirmed, our findings would argue for supplementing the established approach of making diagnoses based purely on clinical history and observable acute symptoms with novel neuroimaging-based diagnostic criteria that "look below the surface" for pathology.