Better Treatment for PTSD Veterans Becoming a Reality
> 11/12/2007 10:53:38 AM

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder continues to receive an inordinate amount of attention from all wings of the American media, and recent clinical developments should help to further inform the public about a still mysterious and widely misunderstood condition. New research has provided a more nuanced view of the neurological manifestations of the condition while providing more effective physiological methods of affirming its diagnosis.

One of PTSD's most common manifestations is a chronic inability to properly regulate one's fear response system; this element explains irrational behaviors such as those of abused patients who resist all forms of intimacy or shell-shocked soldiers who see potential enemies where none exist. Patients deeply affected by PTSD simply encounter problems distinguishing between safety and danger and responding accordingly.

In order to further explore the neurological nature of the relationship between trauma, fear and memory, researchers gathered 14 pairs of identical twins. One member of each pair had seen combat before the study in question, and 50% of those veterans had been diagnosed with PTSD. After being repeatedly exposed to a startling light with a subsequent electrical shock, researchers eliminated the shock altogether, and all patients were able to momentarily end their association between the two. The following day, researchers exposed subjects to the light again; unaffected patients were able to restrain their fear of the light, but PTSD patients registered fear responses nearly identical to those displayed the previous day after receiving both the light and the shock in sequence. It would appear that PTSD patients, though they can repress their sense for cer times, lack the ability to eliminate fear-based responses over time, even in response to familar stimuli.

PTSD also disrupts the mind's memory and attention-related functions in ways that extend beyond the learned fear response. An independent study involving a group of male veterans found that those with PTSD had greater difficulty performing a series of word association activities in which they had to remember which words pairs to match with their correspondents; fMRI scans revealed decreased functions within their frontal cortex, a central player in the mind's ability to retain and recall information. The same part of the brain also regulates the heart: researchers found that, when presented with fear-inducing stimuli, the heart rates of PTSD patients actually increased, when the body's typical response to potential threats is a slowed heart rate.

In these and other ways, PTSD simply distorts the response systems of its victims, prompting their minds and bodies to behave in ways that contradict the circumstances in which they find themselves. Once the body has learned such behaviors, they cannot be easily forgotten, as the mind continues to work by their model long after initial stimuli have been removed or effectively forgotten. By refining the results of such experiments and determining precise functional trends common to PTSD patients, researchers can make future diagnoses more precise and further entrench the particulars of PTSD into both the clinical and common lexicons. They will also, by pinpointing the exact neurological processes contributing to PTSD, develop better medicinal and therapeutic responses. These eventual developments will make identifying PTSD an altogether easier task while hopefully reducing the stigmas that stubbornly continue to color public perceptions of the disorder. Reading the results of studies like these may even encourage some reluctant veterans to seek help for their conditions- and a formal mental health checkup can only bring good things to concerned patients, whether confirming their fitness or identifying relevant disorders.

Representatives for Veterans Affairs groups warn that, despite the fact that variables as minor as humidity can bring memories of violence back to affected veterans, we should not make assumptions regarding individuals who've been in combat; the majority do not suffer from any significant mental illness. Many soldiers return from traumatic military experiences to become stronger and more disciplined people (with appropriate treatment). And most affected patients eventually recover from PTSD, but its effects can extend over years or decades of a patient's life. We welcome any developments promising even a slight reprieve from the influence of this debilitating condition.

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