redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online
Regions of the brain that have been linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in military veterans continue to perform abnormally, even if there is no external stress present, according to new research published in the journal Neuroscience Letters.
The research, which was completed by researchers at the New York University School of Medicine and presented Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatry Association, also found that the effects of chronic trauma were persistent in specific areas of the brain even when the patient is not engaged in cognitive or emotional tasks.
The study authors claim that their findings could provide new insight into which area of the brain provokes traumatic symptoms, and could represent a key step forward towards the development of improved diagnostic and treatment options for PTSD — a condition which can cause flashbacks, nightmares, disturbing memories and emotional instability in those suffering from the anxiety disorder.
NYU School of Medicine research fellow Xiaodan Yan and colleagues recruited 104 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and used fMRI to measure the blood-oxygen levels in their brain under “spontaneous” or “resting” conditions. They discovered that spontaneous brain activity in the amygdala, a key structure in the area of the brain responsible for producing fearful or anxious emotions, was significantly higher in the 52 combat veterans with PTSD than in the 52 who did not suffer from the condition.
“The PTSD group also showed elevated brain activity in the anterior insula, a brain region that regulates sensitivity to pain and negative emotions,” the university explained. “Moreover, the PTSD group had lower activity in the precuneus, a structure tucked between the brain’s two hemispheres that helps integrate information from the past and future, especially when the mind is wandering or disengaged from active thought.”
There is a correlation between decreased activity in the precuneus and increased severity of “re-experiencing” symptoms (the phenomenon during which PTSD patients re-experience traumatic events over and over via flashbacks, nightmares, and fright-inducing thoughts), the researchers noted.
An estimated 20 percent of the 1.7 million men and women who have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD, they said. Previous research has shown that veterans with PTSD have a risk of suicide, and that more soldiers committed suicide than died as a result of combat in Afghanistan in 2012.
The study was supported by a US Department of Defense grant. In addition to the NYU School of Medicine, experts from the University of California at San Francisco, the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, and the Center for Imaging of Neurodegenerative Diseases at the VA Medical Center in San Francisco contributed to the research.