Measuring PTSD brain activity with magnetoencephalography

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Through magnetic-testing research, researchers have discovered a potential breakthrough in the understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that’s sure to “attract” a lot of attention.

Bad puns aside, this finding marks a huge discovery in locating a biomarker for PTSD. Using a technique known as Magnetoencephalography (MEG) – a non-invasive measurement of magnetic fields in the brain – scientists at the University of Minnesota Medical School and Minneapolis Veterans Affair Medical Center found that increased circuit brain activity in the right side of the brain correlates with the debilitating, involuntary flashbacks experienced by PTSD sufferers.

"Having a diagnostic exam capable of confirming post-traumatic stress disorder is critical in treating these patients properly," said Apostolos Georgopoulos, M.D., one of the leaders of the study.

Conventional brain scans you may be familiar with, such as the CT or MRI, have so far failed to demonstrate the differences found in the brains of PTSD sufferers that were detected by the MEG. The discovery could potentially lead to new treatment options for millions afflicted with the disorder.

During the study, scientists also found that PTSD sufferers can relive terrifying memories at any moment regardless of what they are doing. That means that no immediate external stimulation is needed to trigger the panic, stress and terror associated with PTSD and flashbacks.

Now you might be thinking your life is full of panic, stress, and sure, maybe even terror at times. Let’s be clear, though: PTSD is a serious anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal. Sleep difficulties, erratic emotional outbursts, trouble sleeping and feelings of emotional numbness can accompany the disorder. PTSD usually manifests after serious physical harm has occurred or was threatened. That’s why so many veterans and victims of tragedy are faced with this potentially debilitating affliction.

Tragedy victims and war vets aren’t the only PTSD sufferers, however.

A recent study shows that even children aren’t immune to PTSD’s devastating effects. After experiencing a particularly traumatic event, such as a car accident, or witnessing extreme violence, as many as one in five children will go on to develop PTSD. The good news is that a preventative measure known as the Child and Family Traumatic Stress Intervention (CFTSI) has been shown to reduce PTSD symptoms in kids by arming them with coping skills.

“This is the first preventative intervention to improve outcomes in children who have experienced a potentially traumatic event, and the first to reduce the onset of PTSD in kids,” said lead study author Steven Berkowitz, MD.

Women in their early 50s also seem to be more susceptible to the disorder than men of the same age. (Men are most vulnerable from age 41 to 45.)

“As a result (of living longer) individuals have more years in which they can be affected by the negative consequences that can follow traumatic experiences,” said Ask Elklit of the University of Southern Denmark, who recently collected data from 6,548 participants in PTSD studies to investigate gender differences in the disorder. And you thought increased life-expectancy was a good thing!

Seriously, though, the upswing to the vast amounts of research committed to PTSD will hopefully be better, more targeted treatments. Because man, woman, or child; violent crime-victim, veteran or 9/11 survivor – no one should have to relive their worst memory for the rest of their lives.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
October 31, 2010
Last Updated:
November 8, 2010