Disruptive force: MRI shows impact of PTSD in adolescent brain

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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is mostly widely known for its effects on those who have experienced combat, but what impact can it have on children? Researchers from China used MRI to show PTSD's devastating effects in children, with many images showing significant disruption of normal brain functions.

The study, published in the journal Radiology, showed children as particularly susceptible to PTSD, because neurochemical and hormonal changes affect the structure and function of younger individuals for the rest of their lives.

In the study, Chinese researchers used the MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to measure the composition of the brain's white matter and neural connections of 24 patients who were diagnosed with PTSD after surviving the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that nearly 70,000 people. This group was then compared to a control group of 23 trauma-exposed children without PTSD.

"Generally speaking, the structural and functional connectome are based on different types of raw images, which may be used to investigate the brain's abnormalities through different views," said study lead author Qiyong Gong, MD, PhD, from West China Hospital of Sichuan University in Chengdu, China.

The DTI results showed:

  • The brain structures of PTSD patients were significantly different than non PTSD patients.
  • The PTSD group showed a decreased amount of both local and global networks due to damage or disconnection in link regions.
  • The small-world network of the brain was changed to a regular network in PTSD patients, meaning the brain had to take more steps to reach further nodes.
  • The salience network, which selects the stimuli that deserve attention, were also significantly different in the PTSD group, which may prove to be a potential breakthrough in treating pediatric PTSD.

"In a previous functional and current structural connectome study of the same patient group, we found a shift toward regularization in the brain networks of the PTSD patients relative to controls," Gong said. "Thus, we speculate that this regularization process may be a general pattern of pediatric PTSD. These abnormalities suggest that PTSD can be better understood by examining the dysfunction of large-scale spatially distributed neural networks.”