PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder that can occur after traumatic events. Causes of PTSD include:
- Abuse as a child or adult (physical, emotional or sexual)
- Car accidents
- Combat or war
- Plane and train crashes
- Terrorist activities
- Violent crimes
- Witnessing death, severe injury or violence.
PTSD symptoms were originally believed to be purely psychological and emotional reactions to trauma. Recent research, however, reveals chemical and physical changes that occur in PTSD sufferers’ brains. Learn about the fascinating mind-body connection between PTSD and brain changes.
Electrical Brain Activity and PTSD
Scientists from the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis VA Medical Center (2010) have discovered a distinct brain activity pattern associated with PTSD. Their study used a brain-imaging technique called magnetoencephalography (MEG), which records magnetic fields produced by electrical currents in the brain to form a map of brain activity.
During this study, 74 military veterans suffering from PTSD and 250 healthy subjects were asked to stare at a dot for a minute while their brain signals were recorded. Researchers discovered a distinct pattern of miscommunication in electrical brain currents that was practically unique to people with PTSD.
Using solely the MEG results, researchers were able to identify PTSD sufferers with over 90 percent accuracy.
While further study is necessary to confirm these results, scientists hope that MEG screenings can eventually help accurately diagnose PTSD, reduce the stigma associated with the condition and encourage medical PTSD treatment.
The Shrinking Hippocampus
The hippocampus is a part of the brain that connects and organizes memory. Scientists believe that its functions include putting memories in their proper context, place and time, and controlling learned responses such as contextual fear conditioning. Here are some interesting discoveries about stress and the hippocampus:
- A Stanford University study, published in The Journal of Pediatric Psychology (2009), studied the brains of children with PTSD with functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Researchers found that children with PTSD symptoms also tended to have a poorly functioning hippocampus.
- Yale University scientists studied MRIs of Vietnam veterans with PTSD memory problems. This study, published in The American Journal of Psychiatry (1995), found an 8 percent reduction in the size of the right hippocampus, while other portions of the brain retained their size.
Other Changes in Brain Function
Scientist have also found functional PTSD changes in other brain areas:
- The Yale University study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry (1995) found that some PTSD patients show dysfunction in the hippocampus and the medial prefrontal cortex (areas of the brain responsible for fear regulation and other emotions.)
- According to the National Institute of Mental Health (2009), studies with mice suggest that a lack of a certain brain-signaling chemical called GRP (gastrin-releasing peptide) may influence a person’s risk of developing PTSD.
In addition to studying individual areas of the brain, scientists are also interested in the neurochemical aspects of PTSD. Neurotransmitters that may be involved in PTSD include:
Armstrong-Moore, E. (2010). Diagnosing PTSD using brain imaging. Retrieved June 27, 2010, from: http://news.cnet.com/8301-27083_3-10439078-247.htm.
Bremner, J. D., Randall, P., Scott, T. M., Bronen, R. A., Seibyl, J. P., Southwick, S. M.