A new study has suggested that in some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) might not just have a psychological effect on the brain, but could also have a physical one.
Brain analysis of 89 military servicemen, all of whom had survived traumatic brain injuries and 29 who were diagnosed with significant PTSD, showed that the part of the brain that helps control emotion may be larger in people who develop PTSD.
The study was presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s Sports Concussion Conference in Jacksonville, Florida on July 11. This means the research has not yet been part of a peer-reviewed study.
“Many consider PTSD to be a psychological disorder, but our study found a key physical difference in the brains of military-trained individuals with brain injury and PTSD, specifically the size of the right amygdala,” researcher Joel Pieper of the University of California, San Diego said at the conference. “These findings have the potential to change the way we approach PTSD diagnosis and treatment.”
PTSD is often caused by intense psychological stress or experiencing a particularly distressing event. However, in some cases, it’s also triggered by a mild or severe physical brain injury. Each person’s experience of PTSD is unique to them. However, common symptoms of the conditions include intrusive thoughts, general anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, aggression, irritability, and lack of sleep.
Emotions, behavior, and memories are controlled through the brain’s right and left amygdala. The right side is particularly important in controlling fear. The brains scans revealed that people with PTSD after a brain injury had a 6 percent larger amygdala, particularly on the right side, compared to those with mild traumatic brain injury only.
“People who suffered a concussion and had PTSD demonstrated a larger amygdala size, so we wonder if amygdala size could be used to screen who is most at risk to develop PTSD symptoms after a mild traumatic brain injury,” said Pieper. “On the other hand, if there are environmental or psychological cues that lead to brain changes and enlargement of the amygdala, then maybe such influences can be monitored and treated.”
“Further studies are needed to better define the relationship between amygdala size and PTSD in mild traumatic brain injury,” Pieper added. “Also, while these findings are significant, it remains to be seen whether similar results may be found in those with sports-related concussions.”
According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, around 8 million adults in the US suffer PTSD a year, with 7-8 percent of the population likely to suffer from it at some point in their lifetime.