Study finds physical difference in brains of earthquake survivors with PTSD

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Survivors of a recent earthquake who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have greater cortical thickness and reduced volume in specific regions of their brains when compared to other survivors with no reported symptoms, according to results of a study published online March 1 in the journal Radiology.

Research suggests that nearly 7 percent of the total U.S. population will experience PTSD at some point during their lives, with those affected experiencing symptoms ranging from bad dreams, emotional numbness, and intense guilt to worry, angry outbursts and extreme anxiety.

But how PTSD physically affects the brains of patients with both chronic and short-term derivations of the disorder remains largely unstudied, according to lead author Shiguang Li, MD, of the West China Hospital of Sichuan University in Chengdu, and colleagues.

“There is a substantial need for a better understanding of the neurobiological dysfunctions that underlie PTSD to develop improved diagnostic and treatment programs,” the wrote. “Structural [MRI] can provide useful information about neuroanatomical alterations in PTSD; however, there are several methodologic and scientific issues that remain unanswered regarding the nature of cerebral structural alterations in PTSD.”

Li and his team set out to explore specific cerebral alterations related to PTSD, including the relationship of gray and white matter abnormalities and other anatomical changes to the brain. To do so, the researchers performed a prospective study on survivors of an earthquake in western China—67 with PTSD and a control group of 78 adult survivors without PTSD—using 3D T1-weighted MRI.

They discovered that those survivors with PTSD had greater cortical thickness in the right superior temporal gyrus, inferior parietal lobule, and left precuneus, as well as reduced volume in the posterior portion of the corpus callosum compared with the control group.

“Patients with PTSD had alterations in both cerebral gray matter and white matter compared with individuals who experienced similar psychologic trauma from the same stressor,” the authors concluded. “Importantly, early in the course of PTSD, gray matter changes were in the form of increased, not decreased, cortical thickness, which may have resulted from neuro-inflammatory or other trophic process related to endocrine changes or functional compensation.”

Their results show promise in better understanding PTSD and why some survivors of physical and mental trauma may be more likely to develop the neurological disorder than others, according to Li and his colleagues.

“These observations advance mechanistic understanding of early brain changes that determine whether severe emotional trauma will lead to PTSD,” they wrote. “This may have important potential clinical value in the future for identification of individuals who experienced a devastating event and are likely to develop persistent PTSD.”