24th Dec 2019

Predicting Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Are you vulnerable?

24th Dec 2019

Curated by Katherine Bassil

Researchers are one step closer to predicting vulnerability to PTSD in soldiers, which is good news for everyone as 1 in 5 people exposed to a traumatic event are likely to develop this stress disorder.

In 10 seconds? Neuroscientists have made a great discovery in understanding why not all individuals are vulnerable to developing PTSD. Comparing epigenetic profiles in the blood could prove to be successful in early prediction for individuals more likely to be exposed to a traumatic event, particularly soldiers. (Read the science)

Person standing on top of an airplane wreck

Wait, what is an epigenetic profile? Epigenetics is the study of changes to the DNA that lead to alterations in gene expression without any alterations to the genetic code. A widely studied epigenetic mechanism is DNA methylation. After certain environmental experiences, like trauma, DNA methylation in certain genes might change (by increasing or decreasing) as a response. (Find out more about epigenetics) 

And this could lead to vulnerability to brain diseases? In some ways, yes. Researchers found that in Dutch soldiers exposed to combat, distinct, differentially methylated regions were strongly associated with symptoms of PTSD. These findings were replicated in an independent American military cohort. In addition, they found that the implicated genes were involved in processes related to memory formation and neuronal development. (Read more)

How did they find these epigenetic differences? They analyzed DNA methylation – one of the most abundant epigenetic mechanisms that dictates gene expression – in the blood cells of soldiers by using biochips. This technology allows the measurement of more than 485 000 methylation sites simultaneously, across the entire genome. Researchers used blood cell from patients and “turned” them into stem cells. Then, the neurons derived from stem cells were exposed to the stress hormone, cortisol in the lab. The team checked how neurons from PTSD-susceptible people reacted differently to the neurons of resilient individuals. (More on the methods)

Why is this a breakthrough? In fact, there has been no study to date that investigated epigenetic mechanisms comparing PTSD-vulnerable and resilient soldiers. The epigenetic modifications that were identified in this research could be key regulators that lead to the development of PTSD. Understanding the role these key regulators have in the onset of this debilitating disease, could help scientists to both prevent PTSD but also find new therapies for patients suffering from this disorder. (Find out more)

And is that what we can expect in the near future? Not just yet! Even though this research taught us something new and exciting, to confirm the findings, we need to replicate these findings in larger samples and other kinds of traumas, like sexual violence. Additionally, future studies should look into the exact biological role of these key regulators in the brain. By achieving this, research hopes to identify specific biomarkers for the prediction of vulnerability to PTSD to better prevent its development and to intervene whenever necessary. (Read more)

PTSD - it’s not just soldiers who suffer

In one's lifetime, an individual will experience at least three traumatic experiences. 

However, not all those that have experienced trauma will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) - a stress-related disorder triggered by tragic events including sexual and domestic violence, natural disasters, tragic accidents, war combat, among others. 

To date, we do not know why certain individuals develop this disorder after trauma and why others do not, what makes them resilient and susceptible, respectively.

(Psst, Katherine distilled 14 research papers to save you 1245.1 min)

Curated by

Katherine Bassil

PhD candidate at Maastricht University, researcher, science writer, public speaker, podcaster science communicator, researching PTSD.

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