Researchers Discover Method to Objectively Identify PTSD

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

Researchers at the University of Minnesota and Minneapolis VA Medical Center have identified a biological marker in the brains of those patients exhibiting posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
A group of 74 U.S. veterans were involved in the study, which for the first time objectively diagnosed PTSD using magnetoencephalography (MEG), a noninvasive measurement of magnetic fields in the brain. It's something conventional brain scans such as an X-ray, CT or MRI have failed to do.

The ability to objectively diagnose PTSD is the first step towards helping those persons afflicted with this severe anxiety disorder. PTSD often stems from war, but it also can be a result of exposure to any psychologically traumatic event. The disorder can manifest itself in flashbacks, recurring nightmares, anger or hypervigilance.

With more than 90 percent accuracy, researchers were able to differentiate PTSD patients from healthy control participants (250 people with clean mental health) using the MEG. All behavior and cognition in the brain involves networks of nerves continuously interacting; these interactions occur millisecond by millisecond. The MEG has 248 sensors that record the interactions in the brain millisecond by millisecond, much faster than current methods of evaluation such as the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which takes seconds to record.

The measurements recorded by the MEG represent the workings of tens of thousands of brain cells. This recording method allowed researchers to locate unique biomarkers in the brains of patients exhibiting PTSD.

The findings are published January 20 in Neural Engineering. The study was led by Apostolos Georgopoulos, M.D., Ph.D., and Brian Engdahl., Ph.D., both members of the Brain Sciences Center at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center and University of Minnesota.

"These findings document robust differences in brain function between the PTSD and control groups that can be used for differential diagnosis and...possess the potential for assessing and monitoring disease progression and effects of therapy," Georgopoulos said.

Besides diagnosing those persons with PTSD, the researchers also were able to judge the severity of how much the patients were suffering, which means the MEG could possibly be used to gauge how badly patients are impacted by other brain disorders.

The study will likely be replicated in a larger group to assure the accuracy of its results.

This work, specifically on detecting PTSD, follows success in detecting other brain diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease and multiple sclerosis, using MEG, as reported in September 2007.

The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Nick Hanson
[email protected]

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
September 17, 2010
Last Updated:
September 17, 2010