PTSD Update: New Research Reveals Physical Effects on the Brain

Gregory M. Rada Disability Compensation

While traumatic stress from combat is as old as war itself, PTSD did not become an official psychological diagnosis until 1980. Psychological symptoms associated with PTSD are varied and may include persistent nightmares, intrusive thoughts, negative changes in mood, and heightened reactivity.

According to new research presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s Sports Concussion Conference, PTSD may also result in physical changes to the brain. In particular, veterans with PTSD tend to have a larger right amygdala—the part of the brain that controls fear and regulates emotion.

To arrive at this conclusion, a team of researchers from the University of California San Diego scanned the brains of 89 former or current service members suffering from mild traumatic brain injury. Of the 89 study participants, doctors had also diagnosed 29 participants with PTSD. Brain scans showed that the right amygdala of study participants with PTSD measured about 6% larger than the group without PTSD. The researchers noted no significant differences in education level, age, or gender between the group with PTSD and the control group.

While scientists already know that PTSD results in physical scarring to brain tissue, those physical changes were discovered through post-mortem examination. This new study suggests a physical marker for PTSD that is observable while veterans are alive and in need of treatment.

Because a PTSD diagnosis relies heavily on patient reporting, it is easy to miss signs and veterans often minimize their pain. If an enlarged right amygdala turns out to be a reliable biomarker for PTSD that can be observed during the life of the veteran, then doctors have something physical that they can study. That new information could lead to better screening, diagnosis, and treatment.

It is important to note that this new research does not necessarily mean that PTSD causes an enlarged amygdala—it only means that physical changes in the amygdala and PTSD are probably associated with each other. As noted by the study’s lead author, it could be that individuals prone to PTSD after a head injury have a larger amygdala to begin with. Or it could be that PTSD causes the amygdala to become enlarged only if certain conditions are present.

Whether or not the symptoms caused by PTSD are a matter of physical harm, veterans with PTSD know how disabling the condition can be. I represent veterans suffering from PTSD. If you need assistance with your case, feel free to contact me for a consultation.

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