- Consortium in Boston is studying PTSD in young veterans and those exposed to traumatic brain injury
- In veterans no older than 30, brain imaging sometimes looks like that of a 70-year-old
- Current diagnosis includes self-reporting, but scientists hope to create concrete biological factors for measuring disorder
By Beth Stebner
PUBLISHED:12:50 EST, 6 September 2012| UPDATED:15:33 EST, 6 September 2012
American soldiers who return from wars abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan have a host of difficulties in front of them once they hang up their weapons and put their uniforms in the storage chest.
But for many veterans, the horrors of war are haunting, and effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are utterly debilitating, and may cause them to age prematurely.
Researchers are seeing alarming patterns in young veterans’ health, with many otherwise healthy young men developing early-onset diabetes, heart disease, and slow metabolism leading to obesity.
Shell shock: A U.S. Army Private takes cover during a controlled detonation to clear an area for setting up a check point Kandahar; scientists now claim that PTSD is causing vets to age more quickly
Flashbacks: Traumatic events, combined with adrenaline, make it easy for the brain to go back to the worst moments experienced by a soldier
In a ground-breaking consortium led by researchers from Boston University’s School of Medicine, Harvard Medical School and the Veterans Affairs office in Boston’s Jamaica Plain, data shows that about 30 per cent of veterans studied demonstrate these symptoms.
Those with apparent PTSD even have signs of loss of grey matter in the brain, which USA Today notes should not happen until old age.
According to the Pentagon, the number of soldiers with PTSD or brain injury has increased exponentially in recent years.
The government organisation says that since 2000, more than 240,000 soldiers have reported traumatic brain injury.
Many who have returned from warfare experience vivid flashbacks to horrific moments in combat – the sound of gunfire, explosions, and carnage.
In the study, fronted by Draper Laboratory, the consortium of PTSD experts will look at gene data and psychophysiology to evaluate the disorder, as well as using MRIs to map out images of the brain.
A sample of 2,953 American civilians and 345 military veterans was collected.
Troubling signs: Researchers in Boston have been studying more than 340 veterans to further investigate physical factors of PTSD, including heart disease and obesity
Collaboration: Scientists and doctors are looking at the negative effects of PTSD on the brain
In many cases, MRI images of veterans aged 20-30 showed deteriorated brain matter likened to that of a 70-year-old.
Ann Rasmusson, a psychiatrist and neurobiologist, told USA Today that traumatic stress, when left untreated, can cause the brain to become fixated on those moments and go back to them too easily.
As a response to the relentless stress, the body simply ages faster, the researchers hypothesize.
‘No one tells you how to shut it off. I spent a lot of time dealing with my demons.’
-Veteran Ed Fox
Ed Fox, a 31-year-old veteran of the National Guard, witnessed nightly attacks during his tour to Iraq in 2004-2005.
He told USA Today that he has constant flashbacks of mortar attacks and visions of dead bodies, adding that it was difficult to make stop. ‘No one tells you how to shut it off,’ he said. ‘I spent a lot of time dealing with my demons.’
Dr William Milberg, a professor of Psychiatry at Harvard who is the co-director of the Translation Research Center for Traumatic Brain Injury and Stress Disorders (TRACTS) study based at the VA Boston Healthcare System, told MailOnline in an email that the brains of 150 veterans showed significant signs of stress.
He wrote: ‘The red areas are places where there are statistically consistent correlation’s for a sample of over 150 participants in our study. You are looking at the maps on two different sides of the brain.
‘Another way of thinking of this is that the figure shows that in the places that are red and yellow the higher the degree of stress the thinner the top layer of cerebral cortex.’
The statistical map shows that key areas of the 150 veterans’ brains were similarly effected by trauma.
Preliminary data: This is a composite of 150 veterans measuring areas of the brain effected by PTSD; in the places that are red and yellow the higher the degree of stress the thinner the top layer of cerebral cortex
On the rise: Traumatic brain injury, including PTSD, has risen alarmingly since 2005
More than eight per cent of the population will suffer from PTSD at some point in their lives, according to Boston University’s School of Medicine.
In addition to military fighters, civilians who have been exposed to traumatic events – such as car accidents – are prone to suffer from the condition.
When left untreated, PTSD can lead to panic attacks, depression, substance abuse, weight gain, and heart disease.
According to Draper Laboratory, more than half of those with the disorder are not properly diagnosed. This consortium hopes to find concrete chemical evidence to better diagnose and treat the disorder.
‘Although some biological characteristics that point to a PTSD diagnosis have already been identified, more comprehensive study is critical to examine the integrated roles of multiple potential biological factors of the condition,’Dr Roger Pitman, the director of the PTSD Research Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital and Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said in a statement.
‘This will help clinicians develop personalized treatment plans to improve outcomes, rather than relying on one-size-fits-all approaches.