By Sylvia Lindman, WSU Vancouver

VANCOUVER, Wash. – Ten years ago, as a soldier in Afghanistan, Erin Cooper suffered a traumatic brain injury and numerous broken bones from a 40-foot fall off a mountain.

Several explosions she had previously endured compounded the injury. She was in a coma for a while, and doctors were about to prepare a medical military discharge (as opposed to a hospital discharge).

To aid in recovery, Cooper took long hikes in Washington’s Cascade mountain range with her dog. The exercise changed her life.

“I started hiking with my dog to get physically better, she said, “and I noticed it helped me mentally.”

Hiking vs. pharmaceuticals

Cooper had seen other friends with similar injuries who were treated with pharmaceuticals, but those didn’t seem to help. “The only thing I can think of that separates me from these friends is that I do a lot of hiking, and I feel better when I hike,” she said. “So I decided to become a neuroscientist and figure this out so I can help other people.”

After recovering from her brain injury, Cooper returned to military service for another six years and started college online. Working at a lower-paced desk job in Germany, she said, “I started going to online school in psychology and fell in love with science.”

Having completed her contract with the Army in 2013, Cooper hiked for two months on the Appalachian Trail to “put the past behind me.” In 2014, Cooper began attending neuroscience classes on the WSU Pullman campus. Later, she transferred to WSU Vancouver, earning her bachelor’s degree in neuroscience in May 2017. While in Pullman, she also finished the online bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Maryland.

The science behind hiking

Well equipped to study the brain, and hoping to go on to graduate school in neuroscience, Cooper has launched a research experiment that she calls Pathfinder. She is taking veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or traumatic brain injury (TBI) on long-distance hikes, collecting saliva before, during and after the hike to measure how hiking alters the hormones melatonin and cortisol. “Preliminary results indicate that there is a change in these hormones as symptoms are alleviated,” Cooper said, “but more research is needed to confirm these findings.”

She is committed to finding an alternative to the antipsychotics and other drugs that typically are prescribed for veterans with TBI and PTSD. “There really is no medicine specifically for TBI or PTSD,” she said. “There are things that mask the symptoms but don’t treat the causes.” Cooper is particularly appalled at the frequent mixing of psychiatric drugs, which she believes can further damage the minds of those with TBI or PTSD, sometimes leading to depression and suicide.

Professional, financial support

Cooper started a GoFundMe page to raise money to take people hiking. Steve Sylvester, associate professor of molecular biosciences at WSU Vancouver, donated some supplies, and she dipped into her own pocket to buy an analysis kit. With those resources she was able to take her first scientific hike with a fellow veteran in the summer of 2017, and Sylvester again stepped in to help her analyze saliva samples.

“We noticed an intriguing change,” she said. “I would like to replicate this with a larger subject pool, and that’s where I am now.”

Cooper has high praise for Sylvester, as well as Allison Coffin, associate professor of neuroscience, who helped her improve her ability to present her story in an effort to raise money and get other scientists involved. “The logistics of hiking are a little more costly than I’d originally thought,” Cooper said. Sample analysis alone costs $300 per person.

Everyone who Cooper has taken on long-distance hikes, she said, show “the change from beginning to end,” she said. “They’ve been on medications for months or years with no improvement. I take them on a hike, and all of a sudden they’re smiling again, talking to strangers, able to make decisions and weigh options, just better able to connect the dots in their day-to-day life.”

Cooper currently lives on Anderson Island in Puget Sound. She plans two week-long hikes this year. She has been hired to work as a lab technician at the Veterans Administration in Seattle.

Effects of environment, activities

In her formal fundraising letter, Cooper explains why long-distance hiking is so effective. “It doesn’t target just one aspect of brain function, like medication; instead it replicates the environment our brains and bodies evolved in, thereby allowing environmental cues to regulate multiple signaling pathways, including hormone regulation.

“Hormone regulation is essential to moods, brain function and protein synthesis. By showing that these levels change as symptoms are alleviated, new therapies may be developed to treat PTSD and TBI specifically. Imagine a generation of soldiers who would be able to heal from the effects of war without being overmedicated.”

Erin Cooper’s work can be supported by donating to the WSU Vancouver Science Fund and marking the donation for the Sylvester Lab/Pathfinder, or by visiting her GoFundMe site.

 

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