Nov 04

Scientists Coming Closer to Finding Cause of PTSD

Groundbreaking studies on PTSD have discovered some of the the brain functions and physiological causes related to PTSD. An intriguing article by Virginia Hughes in Nature, titled Stress: The roots of resilience, explains the studies in detail. It’s a must read for anyone struggling with PTSD. Scientists have been studying which environmental and social factors determine why some people who go through traumatic events develop PTSD, and others walk away unscathed, for over 30 years. It appears the causes for this immunity to PTSD vary dramatically.

The scientific focus has long been on the psychosocial contributing factors that lead to resilience. Things like a positive attitude, a strong support group, and confronting your fears, all help people get through traumatic events without developing PTSD.More recently, the studies have shifted more towards the genetic and physiological traits that make people able to better cope with the trauma and move on. Hughes explains the new and possibly extremely useful discoveries, in her article.

“Over the past two decades, researchers have used various kinds of imaging techniques to peer inside the brains of trauma victims. These studies report that in people with PTSD, two areas of the brain that are sensitive to stress shrink: the hippocampus, a deep region in the limbic system important for memory, and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a part of the prefrontal cortex that is involved in reasoning and decision-making. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which tracks blood flow in the brain, has revealed that when people who have PTSD are reminded of the trauma, they tend to have an underactive prefrontal cortex and an overactive amygdala, another limbic brain region, which processes fear and emotion.” Hughes says.

“People who experience trauma but do not develop PTSD, on the other hand, show more activity in the prefrontal cortex.”

The brains ability to survive and cope with stress effectively can be shaped by both genetics and environment, studies indicate. It seems that environmental factors play a role not only in the emotional aspect of healing, but in the brains chemical and physical ability to heal itself as well. Drawing the conclusion that our past experiences with stress and trauma, can be used to indicate the likelihood we’ll be able to cope with trauma and stress in adulthood.

“Social interactions are complex and involve many brain circuits and chemicals; no one knows exactly why they provide relief. Being touched by someone is thought to stimulate the release of natural opioids, such as endorphins, in the brain. The ACC is packed with opioid receptors, suggesting that touch could influence its response to stress.
Other clues come from the hormone oxytocin, which courses through the brain during social interaction and has been shown to boost trust and reduce anxiety. In one imaging study4, participants viewed frightening images after receiving nasal sprays of either oxytocin or a placebo. Those who sniffed oxytocin showed reduced activation in the amygdala and weaker connections between the amygdala and the brainstem, which control some stress responses, such as heart rate. The oxytocin surge that comes from being around other people could, like endorphins, help to reduce the stress response.” says Hughes.

“Past social interactions may also affect how a person responds to trauma. Chronic neglect and abuse unquestionably lead to a host of psychological problems and a greater risk of PTSD. Ressler, however, points to a factor that is well recognized but poorly understood: ‘stress inoculation’. Researchers have found that rodents and monkeys, at least, are more resilient later in life if they experience isolated stress events, such as a shock or a brief separation from their mothers, early in infancy.” She continues.

‘Stress’ is packed with great information, and optimistic studies. The article provides hope for the treatment, diagnosis, and prevention of PTSD.  Many of the studies featured in ‘Stress’, provide proof that many contributing factors to overcoming trauma without PTSD, are lacking in the law enforcement work environment. Police officers face the unique challenge of feeling as if they can’t show their anxiety, much less talk about it. Many police officers complain of feeling ostracized for admitting to feeling the symptoms of PTSD. If police officers are forced to keep their feelings suppressed, and strong social support is key in recovering from trauma without developing PTSD, where does that leave police officers who have experienced trauma? There’s now scientific proof that this forced silence is detrimental to the healing process. While this study offers hope for helping those with PTSD, it also serves as a wake up call that police culture regarding PTSD needs to change in order for real healing to begin.

Emily Manke is an Outreach Coordinator, and an occasional blog contributor, at www.criminaljusticeschoolinfo.com.