A new study at the University of California San Diego Health shows post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may have a physical, not just psychological, effect on the brain, Huffington Post reports.
PTSD is a mental health disorder most commonly associated with military veterans, but it can affect anyone who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. Common symptoms of the condition include anxiety, depression, flashbacks, and nightmares.
These psychological effects on the brain are widely researched, but new research now indicates that PTSD also has physical effects on the brain.
UC San DiegoHealth researchers studied 89 former and current military members who suffer from mild traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). In this study, researchers scanned the veterans’ brains and used a symptom scale to determine which participants had significant PTSD.
According to their study, 29 participants had significant PTSD. Researchers went a step further and measured the brains of the participants – discovering that those with PTSD had a larger amygdala, which is the part of the brain that manages emotions.
“It could be that individuals prone to PTSD symptoms after a head injury have a larger amygdala to begin with, that they have a brain primed to respond to fear and startle reflexes in an exaggerated fashion,” Dr. Douglas Chang of UC San Diego said.
“Or,” he continued, “these results could be the result of neuroplasticity, of a brain reaction to fear conditions resulting in growth of the neural networks of the amygdala fear processing organ.”
This study specifically focused on military members, particularly those who had suffered TBIs due to a blast, so more research needs to be done to determine if these results would also occur within the general population.
If these results are found in other studies, the UC San Diego Health researchers are hopeful that this could be significant for both screening and treating PTSD.
“We wonder if amygdala size could be used to screen who is most at risk to develop PTSD symptoms after [a traumatic brain injury],” Chang said.
“On the other hand,” he went on, “if there are environmental or psychological cues that lead to neuroplasticity and enlargement of the amygdala, then maybe such influences can be followed and treated.”