Veterans Can Benefit from Biomarker Research into PTSD

Hospital Corpsman draws blood at the phlebotomy lab on board NMCSD
A Hospital Corpsman draws blood at the phlebotomy lab on board Naval Medical Center San Diego, August 7, 2019. (U.S. Navy photo/Cameron Pinske)

Retired Army Lt. Col. Mike Richardson is vice president of Independence Services and Mental Health at Wounded Warrior Project.

Wounded Warrior Project is committed to the advancement of science and proponents of research into the ailments that afflict wounded warriors.

To this end, Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) recommends a two-part strategy to address veterans’ mental health needs: researching biomarkers to uncover new treatment methods for the future, and delivering excellent evidence-based therapies today.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a complex psychological and physiological condition that has gained the attention of diverse research fields. One emerging field focused on furthering the understanding of the biological aspects of PTSD diagnosis and treatment is biomarker research.

The World Health Organization defines biomarkers as any substance, structure or process that can be measured in the body or its products and influence, or predict the incidence of outcome or disease. Essentially, it is a physical biological manifestation of a condition, like PTSD.

WWP has sponsored and partnered with Cohen Veteran Bioscience (CVB) in a PTSD biomarker research initiative and has engaged our Warrior Care Network academic medical centers at the University of California Los Angeles’ Operation Mend, Massachusetts General Hospital’s Home Base Program, Emory University’s Veterans Program, and Rush University’s Road Home Program to collect biological samples from our patients pre- and post-treatment.

We expect that this research will lead to future diagnostic tools and therapy advancements that will improve the diagnosis of PTSD and the most appropriate form of treatment.

In much the same way that genomics is unlocking deeper insights into the causes of many diseases within the human body, we believe biomarker research is the key to developing a precision medicine model for mental health.

Medical and social scientists aim to develop a biometric profile for PTSD, moving its diagnosis and treatment into a much more specific medical model, similar to what scientists have achieved for cancer profiles.

Such an advancement in diagnosis would allow for more targeted treatments for PTSD and better outcomes.

This is why WWP supports a provision in current bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sens. Jon Tester and Jerry Moran to install a Precision Medicine Program for veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs to identify and validate brain and mental health biomarkers.

WWP believes that, by simultaneously advancing evidence-based therapies and biomarker research, we will maximize our chances of significantly improving the lives of those suffering from PTSD now and improve diagnosis and treatment interventions for the future.

The second component of our strategy is to support evidence-based therapies that minimize symptoms and stabilize patients, and to be vigilant against relying on the stagnant types of treatment for PTSD.

A common criticism of today’s approach to mental health is that health care providers have become stagnant in their delivery model and implementation of evidence-based treatment – akin to using antiquated AM radios to play music in a digital world.

With 20 veterans dying by suicide every day, innovation is crucial, and time is of the essence.

Innovation and advancement in the treatment of PTSD must reach beyond technology and should be applied to the diagnosis and delivery of therapies.

WWP, in partnership with four leading Academic Medical Centers, created the Warrior Care Network to increase access to care and improve the psychological healing of our nation’s wounded veterans.

The Warrior Care Network treatment model delivers a year’s worth of care during a two- to three-week intensive outpatient program (IOP) that integrates evidence-based treatments with alternative therapies.

Those who complete the Warrior Care Network program have seen a significant reduction in PTSD and depression symptoms, translating into more engaging and productive lives.

The program’s completion rates are over 90% -- nearly double the national average. It differs from other traditional models in that veterans generally attend as a squad-sized group of 10 to 12 participants and participate in both individual and group therapy sessions.

We believe that this group dynamic helps lower the stigma of seeking mental health care and creates opportunities for veterans who are struggling with the same challenges to connect and support each other through their recoveries. More than 96% of warriors completing the IOP treatment are satisfied with their care and will tell a battle buddy that they should seek this type of treatment.

In a sense, they start to regain a sense of tribe and identity as they help each other.

While Wounded Warrior Project is committed to delivering excellent treatment today, we are also dedicated to investigating solutions for tomorrow.

With the support of our seven million donors, WWP has provided more than $1.3 billion in life-saving and life-changing programs and services since 2003, including $285 million in mental health and wellness. In the past three years, WWP has increased its investment in mental and brain health programming, and this is now the primary focus of our programmatic investments and engagements.

Veterans who need assistance should contact the Wounded Warrior Project resource center.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to for consideration.

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