Thousands of young veterans exposed to explosions in Iraq and Afghanistan might be at risk of brain trauma much like the kind suffered by young athletes, suggests a small study.

The researchers conducted autopsies on four young veterans and found similarities in the brain tissues of veterans to that of young athletes with early signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is associated with behavioral problems, memory loss, changes in speech, parkinsonism among other symptoms. Traditionally football players and boxers are known to suffer from CTE but research has shown that professional wrestlers and soccer players too have had CTE.

A buildup of tau, a protein that is associated with CTE, was seen in the veterans’ tissue.

“Our paper points out in a profound and definitive way that there is an organic, structural problem in the brain associated with blast exposure,” said Dr. Lee Goldstein of Boston University’s School of Medicine, lead author of the paper, according to New York Times.

According to Huffington Post, the four young veterans studied had complained about memory loss, lack of sleep and learning process for almost a year before dying of suicide or other causes. Three of them had been exposed to blasts and all of them had at least one pre-military concussion from playing football or by being involved in a fight. The veterans were aged between 22 and 45.

Earlier reports have suggested that even mild traumatic brain injury can alter the way brain functions.

"Ramifications are that these hundreds of thousands of military personnel are at risk for this disorder. It doesn't mean by any means that they all have or will get it. But they are at risk for it," said Ann McKee, a Department of Veterans Affairs scientist, co-author of the study, USA TODAY reported.

Experts have said that the data presented in this study is too small to have conclusive answers to the idea that veterans exposed to explosions have the same type of injuries like that of football players.

The researchers in the present study developed an animal model to find if exposure to explosions causes any changes in the brain. The mice were exposed to blasts and studied for any structural or behavioral changes. The researchers found that mice that were exposed to blasts had learning disabilities. Their brain tissue showed damage to axons and neuron degradation even though there was no physical impact on the brain.

“The animal model developed by the researchers will enable a better understanding of the brain pathology involved in blast injuries and, ideally, lead to new therapies to help service members and veterans with traumatic brain injuries,” said Dr. Joel Kupersmith, chief research and development officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs, The New York Times reported.

“Researchers estimate that more than 300,000 U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (20% of the 1.6 million) have sustained a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI), also known as concussion, with the majority going untreated,” write Charles W. Hoge in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Researchers of the present study assert that military veterans may have suffered from organic mental trauma and must be given treatment and disability compensation.

The study is published in Science Translational Medicine.