Two recently published studies by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine have found that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can physically alter the brain and even cause accelerated aging.
In other words, trauma ages people — not only psychologically, but also physically.
The first study
The first study was led by Erika J. Wolf, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine and a clinical research psychologist at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD. The results were published in September 2015 in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
In this study, Wolf and colleagues used a new set of research tools developed by scientists at UCLA and the University of California, San Diego to examine DNA for signs of aging. Specifically, this tool made it possible for researchers to look at specific parts of a person’s genetic code and determine the level of methylation within that region. Methylation, or a tiny molecule that attaches to genes and switches them on and off, can be used to determine a person’s chronological age.
“As we age, what we see in the DNA is a lot of ‘flip-flopping’ — regions that are methylated become unmethylated, and vice versa,” explained Wolf. “There’s a lot of variability, but it makes sense that they are involved with aging.”
To determine how PTSD influences aging, Wolf looked at the genetic code of 281 veterans. These veterans were part of the VA’s Translational Center for TBI and Stress Disorders (TRACTS) database, a project that collects medical information about veterans including brain scans, blood tests and the results of comprehensive psychological exams.
From this data, the researchers found small, but significant evidence that veterans with PTSD were aging faster than normal, at least when it came to their DNA.
“The idea that traumatic events can have a physical effect on people has been around for a long time,” said Mark W. Miller, Ph.D., senior author and an associate professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine. “Observations suggest that traumatic stress starts a cascade of biological consequences that can produce visible signs of aging. More recent research shows how this is happening on a cellular level, and for the first time we have the methods to actually see it in a person’s DNA.”
The second study
The second study, also led by Wolf, was published in the journal Biological Psychiatry. In this study, the researchers examined whether or not veterans with PTSD were more prone to metabolic syndrome, or a collection of symptoms including obesity, high blood pressure, abnormal blood lipids and high blood sugar that can later result in Type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, and even Alzheimer’s.
Previous research has found that metabolic syndrome is increased in veterans, but until this study, no one has determined whether or not it’s also linked to PTSD.
Once again, Wolf and colleagues used information from the TRACTS database. The researchers looked at 346 veterans who had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. From their analysis, the researchers found that PTSD was directly associated with metabolic syndrome. They also found that people with metabolic syndrome had reduced cortical thickness in their brain.
What do these results mean?
These findings are important because, in many ways, clinicians still treat PTSD as simply a “psychological” disorder. These results show that PTSD can have physical effects on the body at both the structural and cellular level.
“Traditionally, treatment for PTSD involves psychotherapy that focuses on the memory of traumatic events,” explained Miller. “That’s an undeniably relevant and important part of treatment. But these studies are suggesting that the clinical picture of PTSD is much bigger than a problem with somebody’s memory. The profound biological changes that accompany it affect not just the mind and memory, but the whole body.”
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About the author
Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group, where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.