Sep 25, 2018 | Updated: 04:34 PM EDT

Clearing the Questions Around PTSD—How Researchers Revealed a New Genetic Link

Mar 13, 2015 02:28 PM EDT

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It's a story not too unfamiliar in the line of duty for those in the armed forces. When faced with the traumatic experiences, dangers and death of warring nations, often those on the front line are scathed to say the least. A new study revealing the origins and genetic markers for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may provide a glimmer of hope for soldiers suffering with the condition, but with the stigma and disbelief the general public has regarding the disorder, the battle is far from over.

Yesterday, after some in-depth research into a new study published this week in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, we received a lot of commentary regarding the "real" nature of PTSD. And with so much disbelief in the air, we thought that we would tackle your questions head-on to give you a little lesson on the disorder, and what the new research reveals.

What is PTSD and what causes it?

"Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur after you have been through a trauma. During this event, you think that your life or others' lives are in danger" public health officials with the US State Department say. "You may feel afraid that you have no control over what is happening."

While traumatic experiences are not altogether rare, PTSD is-relatively speaking. Roughly 60% of men and 50% of women experience at least one severe trauma in there lives, but only a fraction of them develop debilitating PTSD. Women are more likely to experience trauma in the forms of sexual assault and child sexual abuse, whereas, men are more likely to experience trauma in the forms of accidents, physical assault, combat or even witnessing death.

At any given moment in the year, health officials estimate that roughly 5.2 million adults in the US suffer with PTSD. And while that number may seem staggering, it is a number less than one tenth of those who actually experience trauma in their lives.

Why do we see the effects of PTSD so vividly in soldiers of the armed forces?

"When you are in the military, you may see combat. You may have been on missions that exposed you to horrible and life-threatening experiences. You may have been shot at, seen a buddy get shot, or seen death" spokespersons for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs say. "These types of events can lead to PTSD."

"Other factors in a combat situation can add more stress to an already stressful situation. This may contribute to PTSD and other mental health problems. These factors include what you do in the war, the politics around the war, where the war is fought, and the type of enemy you face."

Why now?

Many of our readers commented yesterday on the origins of the disorder, and how they find it hard to believe that early militants somehow were unaffected-in short, they weren't. While the term PTSD may have been coined far after the first wars were fought, the severity of the issue emerged centuries ago. Merely called by other names, the new terminology has centralized research into the area, helped grow the working knowledge of symptoms and causes, and has even allowed for stigma around the issue to be widely addressed. 

Questions regarding the varying symptoms of the disorder are easily addressed in that, much like other disorders such as Autism, it is a spectrum disorder that manifests in many different ways. As the biochemistry and capacity for coping mechanisms is unique to every individual, it would only make sense that mental disorders also be unique to that individual. Which also reveals the great difficulties that current medical professionals face in treating the disorder.

What does the new research have to say and why is it important?

While Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become highly stigmatized as a mental health condition within the armed forces, where soldiers often return home from battle with the debilitating condition, it appears that not only may some soldiers be genetically predisposed to it-some may have immunological reactions that even make it worse. In a new study published this week in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, a team of researchers with the University of Southampton (UK) and University of California, San Diego have uncovered the genetic markers that could theoretically allow them to identify soldiers or patients that may be most at risk, even before they're deployed at all.

Linking their study to the most noted occurrences of PTSD being after war-like situations of violence, the researchers investigated the blood of 188 US Marines before and after they were deployed into conflict zones. While past studies aimed to uncover genetic markers for PTSD by investigating varying gene expression in sufferers versus non-sufferers, the new study took a more encompassing approach that allowed them to look at the entire genome-not just what was happening at the level of expression.

"By comparing US Marines who develop PTSD symptoms to those who do not, we can measure differences in genes, but also take into consideration the dynamic relationships between and among them, their connectivity" lead author of the study with the University of Southampton, Michael S. Breen says. "Because PTSD is thought to be such a complex disorder, measuring these dynamic relationships is crucial to better understanding the PTSD pathology."

Using whole transcriptome RNA sequencing to analyze the blood samples, the team of researchers found multiple genes that were linked to PTSD. But more than that, the researchers also found that these same genes are responsible for the regulation of the innate immune system and signaling within the body.

While the researchers will continue to investigate the causation of these genes being activated by PTSD, their study points towards some sufferers of PTSD having uncontrollable immunological responses, much like others have allergies. This discovery may in fact help destigmatize the condition. In addition, the researchers explain that adopting the approach could one day lead to the creation of a blood panel of biomarkers that could help them identify which patients may be more genetically predisposed to PTSD, and eventually lead to a way of mitigating the condition.

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