Brain scans on soldiers show the trauma of war

January 27, 2009

(ChattahBox) — Today, the condition known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the underlying biological and psychological causes are poorly understood. At the most basic level, PTSD is the result of a breakdown in the defense system that copes with traumatic and frightening experiences. After such events, most people will suffer what is known as Acute Stress Disorder, which involves symptoms of anxiety and depression. The majority will recover, but a minority go on to develop the chronic mental health problems that characterise PTSD. Sufferers are plagued with recurring nightmares, insomnia and depression, experiencing high anxiety, mood swings and relationship difficulties. Divorces, unemployment, homelessness and violence become common; vivid flashbacks can lead to panic attacks; and veterans often sink into a cycle of alcohol or drug abuse as they attempt to deal with their symptoms. New research from America – triggered by the soaring incidence of PTSD among troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan has found striking differences in the brain patterns of those suffering from combat stress, raising hopes that we will be able to identify and treat sufferers much more effectively.
Older studies had linked PTSD to changes in the activity of the amygdala, the area of the brain involved in emotional memory. In 2007, as fighting intensified in Afghanistan and Iraq, cases of PTSD among American military personnel increased by more than 50 per cent. The Pentagon poured money into research – the latest installment of which has revealed that there are differences in parts of the brains of those with PTSD. Dr Norbert Schuff, of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in San Francisco, found using MRI scans that the hippocampus of sufferers, which plays a major role in short-term memory and emotions, had decreased in size. There was also increased blood flow in the prefrontal cortex, the region responsible for decision-making – hyperactivity here is thought to be involved in the excessive reaction to fear. Most strikingly, there was a loss of up to 10 per cent of the grey matter – the nerve cells and blood vessels that make up much of the brain.

What is unclear is exactly why these changes have come about – and whether they are the cause of combat stress, or its consequence. One possible explanation comes from research which found a link between PTSD and mild brain trauma, suggesting that the condition could in some cases be triggered by mild brain injuries resulting from nearby explosions.

In addition to the research into the causes of PTSD, new treatment is being developed, drawing on neurolinguistic programming, relaxation techniques and even Eye Movement Desensitisation Therapy, which involves following a moving light or object with the eyes, to work through the bad memories. But there are no simple solutions, beyond avoiding war.


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