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University of Minnesota researchers find biomarker of resilience in veterans exposed to trauma

New research conducted at the Brain Sciences Center of the Minneapolis VA Medical Center and the University of Minnesota shows that the brain can actively adapt in response to potentially traumatic events (PTEs). This neural adaptation to trauma is a biomarker of resilience. People who develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in response to trauma have yet to experience this neural adaptation.

The findings from a team of researchers are published online today in JAMA Psychiatry.

“Posttraumatic stress disorder is a complex psychiatric syndrome that develops in response to trauma exposure. Individuals with PTSD experience intrusive recollections or re-experiencing of the traumatic event, avoidance of trauma reminders, emotional numbing, and hyperarousal,” said coauthor Apostolos Georgopoulos, M.D., Ph.D., Regents Professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Neuroscience. “Nearly 7 percent of the general population and up to 30 percent of veterans meet lifetime criteria for PTSD. PTSD is one of the most common psychiatric disorders, representing a significant and costly public health concern.”

The team used magnetoencephalography (MEG), a noninvasive technique that detects magnetic fields produced by postsynaptic potentials in the brain to examine the impact of trauma on neural interactions in nearly 200 subjects.

This is the first study using MEG to examine how exposure to PTEs affects neural activity among healthy veterans (control) and veterans with PTSD.

“Most people experience some sort of trauma in their lifetime but relatively few go on to develop PTSD or other psychiatric disorders. That is, most people are resilient,” said lead author Lisa M. James, Ph.D., research psychologist at the Brain Sciences Center and assistant professor, Department of Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota. “We’re trying to identify brain-based mechanisms that distinguish healthy resilience from pathological outcomes.”

Extending previous research showing that MEG can identify biological markers of PTSD and other mental disorders, these current findings show great promise for monitoring response to treatment, and for developing improved treatments.

“Our findings are not consistent with the widely held notion that trauma impairs your brain function and therefore causes PTSD; in fact, resilient people systematically rewire their brains in response to trauma,” said coauthor Brian Engdahl, Ph.D., associate professor  of psychology, Brain Sciences Center, University of Minnesota and counseling psychologist at the Minneapolis VA. “How you handle the memories, whether through your own efforts, the support of friends and family, mental health treatment, or all of the above, determines your outcome.  The results can be seen in our MEG scans.”

The study was partially supported by a grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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