VA Gets New Researcher, Launches Studies

September 22, 2011

Little Joins as Neuroimaging and Genetics Core Leader

On August 29, 2011, the Heart of Texas Health Care Network (VISN 17) Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans (CoE) at the Waco Veterans Affairs (VA) campus welcomed Deborah Little, Ph.D. to its research team.

Dr. Little serves as the CoE’s Neuroimaging and Genetics Core leader where she guides research into the biological foundations of a predisposition to mental health problems and treatment outcomes in veterans by using genetics and advanced imaging procedures.  She will also serve in a faculty role at Texas A&M Health Science Center (TAMHSC) College of Medicine.

Formerly of the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago, Dr. Little is funded by the Department of Defense, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and recently received a Merit Award from the VA.

The Merit Award will fund a study to investigate the effects of blast and mild traumatic brain injury on thalamic and brainstem fiber integrity and function using a combination of neuropsychological testing high-field MRI and oculomotor function tests.  Ever productive, Dr. Little has generated more than 10 publications since January 2011.

Large-Scale, Longitudinal Studies to Help Veterans

The CoE also recently launched two large-scale, long-term studies to investigate veterans’ health during and after deployment.

Project SERVE, a study evaluating returning veterans’ experiences, examines how veterans with combat exposure adapt to potentially traumatic events during deployment and general stress after returning to civilian life.  By following a large number of veterans over time, the study aims to understand the long-term effects of combat exposure in veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom and how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder and substance use disorder develop and express themselves in the brain.

The Million Veteran Program, or MVP, is one of the largest nationwide studies of genes and their effects on health. Throughout the next five to seven years, the VA aims to enroll 1 million veterans into the program which will then collect and examine their genetic samples and health information.  Collecting data from such large groups of people and then comparing that information will enable researchers to learn which genes are linked with certain health traits like disease susceptibility and response to medication.

The CoE at a Glance

Through the VA in conjunction with the TAMHSC College of Medicine, the CoE researches the causes of and develops treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse and other issues encountered by returning war veterans.  The research team not only focuses on mental health outcomes, but also integrates genetic and neuroimaging modalities into the clinical studies.

The CoE is led by Suzy Bird Gulliver, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the TAMHSC College of Medicine and principal investigator on many of the CoE’s research grants.

Since its founding in 2006, the CoE has obtained more than $21 million in grant funding.

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