Women Veterans & PTSD - News stories

 

 

Locked Circuits

by David Kattenburg - Green Planet Monitor podcast - February 18, 2016

An estimated ten percent of Canadians struggle with depression, flashbacks and panic attacks associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). So do 14,000 Canadian veterans – among them, retired Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, who witnessed some of the worst horrors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Recent science suggests inflexible brain circuits are to blame. Getting them unstuck is the aim. At a large veterans' hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota, researchers have pinpointed the neural circuits that drive PTSD flashbacks and panic attacks.

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Researchers pinpoint circuits that drive PTSD flashbacks

By David Kattenburg, for CBC News Feb 04, 2016

Dr. Apostolos Georgopoulos is the director of the Brain Science Centre at the Minneapolis VA Medical Centre, a large veterans' hospital in Minnesota. Researchers there say they've pinpointed the neural circuits that drive PTSD flashbacks and panic attacks. "Your brain is a dynamic network," said Georgopoulos, describing how healthy brains form neural networks, and then wipe the slate clean and start all over."

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A focus on female vets

by Carmen Peota - Minnesota Medicine - August 2015

When Lisa M. James, PhD, arrived at the Brain Sciences Center at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center in 2010, the young scientist was very much aware that researchers there had just shown that magnetoencephalography (MEG) could be used to diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a 2010 article published in the Journal of Neural Engineering, they reported being able to distinguish, with better than 90 percent accuracy, between brain scans of people who did and did not have PTSD.

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But, they found, in people who have not developed PTSD despite exposure to trauma, the patterns lack staying power. In them, "these patterns loosen and dissipate over weeks, months, or days," says lead researcher Lisa James, an assistant professor in the U's Department of Psychiatry and a researcher in the Brain Sciences Center at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, where the study took place. "This wipes the slate clean."

"Our work means that in resilient people the brain can actively adapt to traumatic experiences in a way that those with PTSD cannot. The better we understand the brain mechanisms associated with PTSD, the sooner we can apply that knowledge to evaluating treatment efficacy."

Co-author Apostolos Georgopoulos likens the situation in a trauma-exposed brain to an infection.

How MEG works

The advantage of MEG is its ability to detect brain activity on a scale of milliseconds. The researchers placed an apparatus resembling a helmet over the heads of the subjects, who were asked to fixate on a stationary dot with their eyes for 60 seconds. The helmet contained 248 sensors, each of which detected the magnetic fields generated in a population comprising tens of thousands of cortical cells. Together, the sensors scanned the magnetic activity over the whole cortex.

'It's like having a disease, where you make antibodies," says Georgopoulos, a Regents Professor of neuroscience and director of the Brain Sciences Center. "If you can't make antibodies, you don't adapt to the virus. Similarly, if you don't de-correlate your brain networks, you're still sick."

Short-term tracking of the PTSD-linked patterns in people exposed to trauma could potentially identify those who are resilient vs. those who need treatment. Pattern tracking could also be used to monitor progress during PTSD treatments or to validate a simpler test for resilience, such as genetic or personality traits, the researchers say.

The work is published online in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

How to eavesdrop on brain chatter

The researchers studied 86 veterans with PTSD and 113 veterans who were resilient to trauma. A questionnaire revealed the extent of their exposure to trauma; those with trauma exposure but no PTSD were, by definition, resilient controls.

The team used a noninvasive technique called magnetoencephalography (MEG; see sidebar)) to study the magnetic fields generated in neurons of the right temporal lobe cortex as they received messages during neuronal "talk." Neurons receiving messages experience movements of ions across their outer membranes; these movements generate the magnetic fields.

The MEG measured the strength of correlated patterns of activity in cell populations—i.e., simultaneous generation of magnetic fields—characteristic of PTSD. They discovered:

  • Among controls, weaker PTSD-related patterns tended to occur in those with highertrauma scores. In other words, "In controls, big trauma leads to a big adaptation," says Georgopoulos.
  • Also in controls, the right temporal cortex had a crucial node in which brain activity was decorrelated, a signal of adaptation. This area of the brain is a focus of future study.
  • Resilience isn't an all-or-nothing trait, but a continuum.
The trauma landscape

Most people are resilient to some events, so the question becomes: Why isn't everybody?

"About 60 to 90 percent of people will experience a potentially traumatic event in their lifetime, like a car accident or the sudden death of a loved one, but they are resilient. They don't develop symptoms of a psychiatric disorder," says James.

"Only seven percent of people in the general population and about 20 percent of veterans develop PTSD. Most come back [from service] without PTSD—what enables them to do that?"

To answer that question, the researchers are turning their attention to a search for genetic markers of resilience. If certain genes or, perhaps, personality traits, are found to be associated with resilience, that could allow researchers to predict one's degree of resilience before trauma hits.

"PTSD sufferers have options that include medications, talk therapy, and interventions to treat nightmares," James says. "We're interested in what happens in the brain as individuals with PTSD respond to treatment."

 

Video: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Women Veterans

AAMCtoday - 2015 Health Equity Research Snapshot - May 4, 2015

Researchers use brain imaging to identify biological indicators of PTSD in women and genetic tests to understand why some women will develop PTSD while others won't.

Watch YouTube video ...

 

The trail of trauma

by Deane M. Morrison - UMNnews - Health+Medicine - August 27, 2013

When a disaster strikes, groups of people spontaneously form and start talking all at once.And your brain does the same thing in response to personal trauma. Groups of neurons in the cerebral cortex start firing at the same time, "talking" to each other, and get locked into a correlated pattern of activity. Previous work by University of Minnesota researchers identified a particular pattern so strongly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that they can clearly tell who has PTSD. Now, a new study shows that in people with PTSD, these patterns persist, just as do the intrusive, incapacitating memories or re-experiencing of the events, emotional numbing, and hyperarousal that define the disorder.

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But, they found, in people who have not developed PTSD despite exposure to trauma, the patterns lack staying power. In them, "these patterns loosen and dissipate over weeks, months, or days," says lead researcher Lisa James, an assistant professor in the U's Department of Psychiatry and a researcher in the Brain Sciences Center at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, where the study took place. "This wipes the slate clean."

"Our work means that in resilient people the brain can actively adapt to traumatic experiences in a way that those with PTSD cannot. The better we understand the brain mechanisms associated with PTSD, the sooner we can apply that knowledge to evaluating treatment efficacy."

Co-author Apostolos Georgopoulos likens the situation in a trauma-exposed brain to an infection.

How MEG works

The advantage of MEG is its ability to detect brain activity on a scale of milliseconds. The researchers placed an apparatus resembling a helmet over the heads of the subjects, who were asked to fixate on a stationary dot with their eyes for 60 seconds. The helmet contained 248 sensors, each of which detected the magnetic fields generated in a population comprising tens of thousands of cortical cells. Together, the sensors scanned the magnetic activity over the whole cortex.

'It's like having a disease, where you make antibodies," says Georgopoulos, a Regents Professor of neuroscience and director of the Brain Sciences Center. "If you can't make antibodies, you don't adapt to the virus. Similarly, if you don't de-correlate your brain networks, you're still sick."

Short-term tracking of the PTSD-linked patterns in people exposed to trauma could potentially identify those who are resilient vs. those who need treatment. Pattern tracking could also be used to monitor progress during PTSD treatments or to validate a simpler test for resilience, such as genetic or personality traits, the researchers say.

The work is published online in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

How to eavesdrop on brain chatter

The researchers studied 86 veterans with PTSD and 113 veterans who were resilient to trauma. A questionnaire revealed the extent of their exposure to trauma; those with trauma exposure but no PTSD were, by definition, resilient controls.

The team used a noninvasive technique called magnetoencephalography (MEG; see sidebar)) to study the magnetic fields generated in neurons of the right temporal lobe cortex as they received messages during neuronal "talk." Neurons receiving messages experience movements of ions across their outer membranes; these movements generate the magnetic fields.

The MEG measured the strength of correlated patterns of activity in cell populations—i.e., simultaneous generation of magnetic fields—characteristic of PTSD. They discovered:

  • Among controls, weaker PTSD-related patterns tended to occur in those with highertrauma scores. In other words, "In controls, big trauma leads to a big adaptation," says Georgopoulos.
  • Also in controls, the right temporal cortex had a crucial node in which brain activity was decorrelated, a signal of adaptation. This area of the brain is a focus of future study.
  • Resilience isn't an all-or-nothing trait, but a continuum.

The trauma landscape

Most people are resilient to some events, so the question becomes: Why isn't everybody?

"About 60 to 90 percent of people will experience a potentially traumatic event in their lifetime, like a car accident or the sudden death of a loved one, but they are resilient. They don't develop symptoms of a psychiatric disorder," says James.

"Only seven percent of people in the general population and about 20 percent of veterans develop PTSD. Most come back [from service] without PTSD—what enables them to do that?"

To answer that question, the researchers are turning their attention to a search for genetic markers of resilience. If certain genes or, perhaps, personality traits, are found to be associated with resilience, that could allow researchers to predict one's degree of resilience before trauma hits.

"PTSD sufferers have options that include medications, talk therapy, and interventions to treat nightmares," James says. "We're interested in what happens in the brain as individuals with PTSD respond to treatment."


 

Mpls. VA brain research examines resilience to trauma

by Jessica Mador · MPRnews · February 20, 2013

New research from the Minneapolis VA Medical Center has identified brain patterns that appear to be markers of resilience to trauma. The findings could suggest why some people exposed to trauma develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, while many others do not.

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Researchers say the findings, published online Wednesday in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, point to a central mechanism showing how the brain can recover from traumatic events.

In the study, scientists compared the brains of nearly 200 veterans who had experienced trauma, using magnetoencephalography (MEG). The machine detects the magnetic fields produced when groups of brain cells communicate.

The MEG scans of PTSD-affected brains showed distinctive clusters of neurons locked into interactions with other clusters.

"We believe these neuron networks were stuck in the trauma-encoding phase," said lead author Lisa James, a research psychologist at the Brain Sciences Center and an assistant psychiatry professor at the University of Minnesota. "The trauma had a hold on them. They weren't available to encode new information."

She compared the phenomenon to a "phone network where every line is busy."

By contrast, James said, non-PTSD volunteers showed no such patterns.

Their neural networks were flexible, adaptable and available. They were free to link up with other neuron groups as needed to react to new incoming experiences.

"People really are resilient," James said, "and we've been able to demonstrate exactly what is going on in the brain that helps facilitate healthy functioning following trauma exposure."

The study's co-author, Brian Engdahl, a psychologist at the Minneapolis VA and an associate psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, said PTSD-affected brains look very different from normal brains, which process trauma and move on to other tasks.

"Those who have continued to experience disorders such as PTSD have not yet adapted their brain function to accommodate the trauma," Engdahl said, "and we are actively investigating the best treatment routes to produce those changes."

Engdahl used the analogy of a handshake to describe how healthy neural networks respond to traumas: "When a trauma comes in, everyone [populations of neurons within the brain] is shaking hands tightly. The neurons are very tied up with processing this experience. Over time, the handshake weakens. It gets less intense. The network eventually gets released and is free to respond to other events."

In normal brains, he said, the traumatic memory eventually gets consolidated and deposited in other brain regions. The memory remains housed in the brain, but it's not pathological. It does not impair function.

The brain area where the researchers saw the sharpest difference between the two groups of study volunteers was the right superior temporal gyrus.

Part of this region in the brain helps with auditory processing, but the researchers say the area they were probing was a deeper part of the superior temporal gyrus, the role of which is not clearly known.

"It's no man's land," said senior author Dr. Apostolos Georgopoulos, director of the Brain Sciences Center at the Minneapolis VA and Regents Professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School's Department of Neuroscience.

He pointed out, though, that some studies have linked the region to the re-experiencing of past events, which clearly plays a role in PTSD.

"Our patients with PTSD tell us that the intrusive memories have a life of their own," Georgopoulos said. "They pop into their minds when they don't want them. And that's what we're seeing on the brain scans."

The new study complements research published by the group in 2010 in which it first described distinctive PTSD brain patterns, as detected by the MEG.

"This new paper helps explain why we found what we found in those earlier studies," Georgopoulos said. "Based on this work, we hope to develop reliable biomarkers for PTSD and for emotional resilience."

The study was partly supported by a grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

 

Video: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Women Veterans

AAMCtoday - 2015 Health Equity Research Snapshot - May 4, 2015

Researchers use brain imaging to identify biological indicators of PTSD in women and genetic tests to understand why some women will develop PTSD while others won't.

Watch YouTube video ...

 

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