Friday, March 13, 2015

Is it in Your Genes: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. <>
Since October 2001, approximately 1.7 million U.S. troops have deployed as part of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF; Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF; Iraq). The deployment pace in these recent conflicts is unprecedented, with more service members deployed for longer periods of time. At the same time, advances in both medical science and military technology have dramatically reduced casualty rates of killed or wounded.1 This means more service members are surviving experiences that would have led to death in the earlier prolonged wars, such as Vietnam and Korea War. Casualties of a different kind have emerged, however - invisible wounds such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may develop after a person is exposed to one or more traumatic incidents including sexual assault, torture, child abuse, car accident, natural disaster, or combat during war. The person who develops PTSD may have been the one who was harmed, or the person may have witnessed a harmful event that happened to others. In the typical case, the individual with PTSD persistently avoids all thoughts, emotions, and discussion of the stressor event and may experience amnesia for it. However, the event is commonly relived by the individual through intrusive flashbacks, nightmares, and extreme emotional and physical reactions to reminders of the event. Other common symptoms linked with PTSD include panic attacks, depression, suicidal impulses, drug abuse, and isolation.

According to data published by PTSD Alliance and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives, and up to 20 percent of these people will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. At any given time, more than 13 million Americans have PTSD (or 7-8% of the population). It is easy to imagine then, with increasing survival rates in combats, PTSD among war veterans returning to society is becoming more prevalent. About 12% of Gulf War Veterans while 11-20% of Afghanistan and Iraq Veterans have PTSD in a given year. 2,3 The two-year post-deployment costs to society resulting from PTSD for the 1.7 million deployed service members are estimated to range from $4.0 to $6.2 billion, and because this estimate does not account for costs that may arise after two years, it underestimates the total cost.1

War veterans are most vulnerable to PTSD. <>

The idea that your genes play a role in whether you develop PTSD is a popular focus of recent research. Studies of twins show that genetic factors account for about 30% of the differences in response to trauma, with identical twins much more likely to both develop PTSD than fraternal twins.

Roee Admon, along with his colleagues at Harvard Medical School, proposed a new PTSD model, according to which, changes in two brain areas - the amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulated cortex (dACC) - may predispose people to PTSD. Both regions of the brain are involved in feeling and expressing fear, and both appear to be over-activated in people with PTSD even before they develop the condition. The heightened activity in the amygdala and the dACC may contribute to one of the hallmarks of PTSD, called hyperarousal, which can cause people to be irritable or easily startled. Individual differences in genes, along with earlier life experiences, may lead to increased activity in the amygdala and dACC.5

Another area of focus is genes that play a role in creating fear memories. Understanding how fear memories are created may help to fine measures for reducing the symptoms of PTSD. Researchers have found genes that make stathmin, a protein needed to form fear memories. Mice that do not make stathmin are less likely than normal mice to "freeze," a natural protective response to danger, after being exposed to a fearful experience. They also showed less innate fear by exploring open spaces more willingly than normal mice.5

The complete mechanism of how post-traumatic stress disorder develops is yet unknown. It is likely that many genes will small effects are at work in PTSD. However, many ongoing researches focus on discovering genes that cause an individual to become prone to develop PTSD. At current rate of ongoing research, we may soon be able to predict who is at risk for PTSD before they experience a traumatic event, as well as treat people at the right time after trauma to prevent subsequent development of PTSD.

1. Tanielian, Terri. Assessing Combat Exposure and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Troops and Estimating the Costs to Society, Invisible Wounds of War Study, RAND., Mar. 2009. <>.

2. Epidemiology of PTSD, PTSD: National Center for PTSD, US. Department of Veterans Affairs, Nov. 2014. <>.

3. Statistics on PTSD, PTSD Allaince, Beachway Therapy Center, 2001. <>.

4. Stein, M.B., Jang, K.L., Taylor, S., Vernon, P.A., Livesley, W.J., Genetic and environmental influences on trauma exposure and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms: a twin study, Oct. 2002, The American Journal of Psychiatry.

5. Rettner, Rachael. Unraveling PTSD: New Look Reveals How Disorder May Progress, Livescience, Jul. 2013. <>.


  1. The PTSD model proposed by Admon & colleagues provides an interesting prospect for the future of therapy. In many other disorders (including depression, bulimia nervosa, and addiction), a combination of pharmacotherapy and some sort of talk therapy; this treatment approach could prove itself useful in treating those with PTSD as well. By identifying proteins and genes that could be involved in predisposing individuals to the disorder, it opens the door to research of both preemptive and treatment strategies to individuals with PTSD. In the case of war, should a soldier display the signs of predisposition for the disorder, it would be interesting to see if there was a type of drug that could be used to intervene in the memory making processes in an effort to prevent the development of the condition. Furthermore, it could provide a treatment that would be overall more effective (due to the combination of talk and drug therapy) for veterans who have returned and are suffering from the symptoms of the disorder. The identification of a genetic/physiological link to PTSD suggests that there may be a way to better address the symptoms and obtain more successful results in patients.

  2. This is interesting. I always thought that if a person experienced an event that was so traumatizing that they would be the ones who suffer from PTSD. It is fascinating that people that do not have PTSD yet have higher activity in their amygdala and their dACC. Also the fact that there are genes that help people to recreate the image of the horrific event. If people did not have this gene it would completely change the way that they would react to things. So I wonder if there are tests that people without PTSD could take to give them results about their brain activity and the amount of stathmin they have.

  3. My mom works at the VA hospital in Ann Arbor and many of her patients are strongly affected by PTSD. It is definitely a major problem with returning veterans and not nearly enough is being done to aid vets (and people in general) suffering from PTSD. It is interesting that some people are more likely to develop PTSD because of genetically predisposed vulnerabilities. Although this won't be plausible for a while, I wonder if some sort of gene therapy could be used to reduce these vulnerabilities in soldiers and decrease their chance of returning with PTSD.

  4. I found this to be very relevant to what is happening with war vets today. I am wondering if maybe there is a way to screen soldiers prior to deployment to see if they have the genetic markers of PTSD, and then station them based on that (people who are more susceptible sent to less dangerous areas). I know that there would be a lot of ethical issues with this idea, but it may be worth exploring.

  5. I think the therapeutic option mentioned in the article, blocking the production of stathmin, would be an interesting drug to use in a combination of pharmocoptherapy and other therapies as Olivia said, to help those suffering from PTSD. While I think it may be ambitious to look to screen individuals for increased amygdala activity and create gene therapy, I think there is also a reason that individuals develop PTSD. Even though those with predispositions have them, they do not develop PTSD until they experience a traumatic event. I think in this it may be preemptive to look to correct their brain functioning for something that may not happen and may have adverse effects on their overall brain chemistry. Realizing one has PTSD can be a wakeup call for some, and perhaps these increased cases will not only bring help to those suffering from PTSD but will also draw attention to the suffering and traumatic events which transpire to make PTSD more common.

  6. Knowing someone who has PTSD it is great to see new research on it that can help provide new insight into solving their pain. The idea of a genetic predisposition is fascinating and I am definitely going to spend some time in the future looking more into it.