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Scan May Be New Diagnostic Tool for PTSD

by Teri Robert

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be a debilitating condition, but at this time no biomarker currently exists. A biomarker is a distinctive biological or biologically derived indicator, such as a biochemical metabolite in the body, an indicator that would confirm a diagnosis of PTSD. Having such a biomarker that could be found in a diagnostic test would certainly speed the diagnosis, thus helping sufferers of PTSD get treatment sooner.

Scientists is Minnesota think they have found a PTSD "fingerprint" that will confirm the diagnosis of PTSD by measuring electromagnetic fields in the brain.

Previous attempts to use imaging studies such as CT scans, MRI, and conventional x-rays have been unsuccessful because their images of the brain are too slow. Georgopoulos and his team of researches used magnetoencephalography (MEG) to monitor the flow of electrical signals along the brain's neural pathways. They used a helmet with 248 noninvasive sensors around the head to map patterns of electrical activity in the brain.

"This shows that PTSD is a brain disease... There have been questions that this is a made-up disorder and isn't a true brain disease, but it is... It (the magnetic-imaging biomarker) will be a tremendous tool in monitoring treatment because these abnormal communication patterns will be normalized as the treatment works."1 ~ Dr. Apostolos Georgopoulos, Lead Researcher

The study:

Study methods:

  • There were 74 participants with a confirmed primary diagnosis of PTSD (69 men, five women).
  • Several participants had PTSD linked to childhood abuse or other non-military trauma.
  • Participants with combat trauma had served in several wars, including World War II, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
  • 56 of the 74 participants were taking medications for PTSD
  • "To minimize subject burden, we did not contact veterans with indicators of instability within the last 6 months (e.g. inpatient medical or mental health treatment, significant changes in health or medications, etc) or those with psychotic disorders based on medical record review. We also excluded veterans with active substance use disorders, serious chronic pain and other CNS disorders (e.g. Parkinson’s disease, dementia, cerebral vascular accidents, etc)."2
  • A control group of 250 participants was enrolled (151 men, 99 women). Control participants were within the age range of the PTSD group.

Study results:

  • With MEG, distinctive patterns indicated PTSD in 72 of the 74 (97.3%) patients with a previously confirmed diagnosis of PTSD.
  • MEG produced 31 (12.4%) false positives in the 250-participant control group.

Study conclusions:

"Altogether, these findings document robust differences in brain function between the PTSD and control groups that can be used for differential diagnosis and which possess the potential for assessing and monitoring disease progression and effects of therapy."2

Summary and comments:

Certainly, everyone would like to see a reliable, quick method to diagnose PTSD. At this point, not everyone is sure this study is conclusive.

Dr. Sally Satel, a psychiatrist affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute who has studied PTSD, says she's skeptical that there's "a fixed neural signature" for the condition. But she adds that the study "is a first step toward a more thorough analysis that may or may not prove useful in diagnosing, treating and predicting outcomes."1

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