Friday, November 23, 2007

Faking out brain injury tests, with a little help from friends

When I first saw this headline, “Brain Injury Tests Changed Because Troops Caught Cheating,” on a November 19 story by Catherine Donaldson-Evans for Fox News, I assumed that troops were faking a brain injury to get out of a danger zone.

Not at all. They were pretending that they did not have a brain injury, in order to rejoin their comrades. One way they did it was by learning the answers to standard questions from other soldiers who had been through the routine. So now the questions have been changed. Apparently, football players have also been known to try to fake out brain injury tests in order to return to the game as soon as possible.

The problem that concerns the army medics is that people with brain injuries may not make good decisions, and they could put others at risk as well as themselves.
Troop leaders know that injured soldiers who beat the diagnostic exam may make costly mistakes when they return to battle, but many of the soldiers and Marines who cheat may not be fully cognizant of the possible consequences — and if they are, they may be willing to take that chance.

The injuries were, of course, minor; if open, bleeding wounds were noticed, the soldier would not be sent back even if all the questions were answered correctly.

I can remember when, decades ago, brain injuries were considered a neural and mental death sentence. But in the 1990s, neuroscientists began to address the remarkable plasticity of the brain. And the key to that plasticity is - as in this story - the plasticity of the mind. Presumably, the army medics had not realized that soldiers would simply teach their buddies how to fake out the test and get back to the unit ASAP.

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