Study: Brain Scans Diagnose PTSD With 90 Percent Accuracy

By Andrew Moseman | January 25, 2010 10:48 am

brain 4Despite the prevalence of post traumatic stress disorder, especially in veterans (an estimated one in five  from Iraq and Afghanistan have it, according to the Department of Defense), it can be maddeningly tricky to diagnose. But in a new study in Journal of Neural Engineering, brain researcher Apostolos Georgopoulos argues that his team has found, through the brain scanning technique called magnetoencephalography (MEG), a pattern in the brain associated with PTSD. In a MEG scan, researchers measure the magnetic fields generated by electric activity in the brain; the scans are far faster than those taken via MRI.

Georgopoulos and colleagues studied 74 U.S. veterans with PTSD and 250 people with no mental health problems. They scanned the brains of study participants looking for a signal that might distinguish a PTSD patient from a healthy volunteer [Reuters]. The researchers mapped the neural interactions for both groups, and they say that the resulting map of biomarkers allowed them to look at brain scans, without knowing whether the person had PTSD or not, and pick out the PTSD patients from controls with 90 percent accuracy.

The main upshot of finding reliable biomarkers for PTSD would be making diagnosis easier and more accurate. In addition, the map shows changes over time, which therapists could consult to see how well treatment is working. But for Georgopoulos, there’s something more: “This shows that PTSD is a brain disease,” he says. “There have been questions that this is a made-up disorder and isn’t a true brain disease, but it is” [TIME].

The biomarkers in question are patterns of tiny magnetic fluctuations that occur as groups of neurons fire in synchrony, even when subjects are not thinking of anything. These “synchronous neural interactions” have already been shown to distinguish signals from subjects with a range of disorders including Alzheimer’s [BBC News].

Not all are convinced that Georgopoulos is on to something: Dr. Sally Satel, a psychiatrist now affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute who has studied PTSD, says she’s skeptical that there’s “a fixed neural signature” for the condition [TIME]. However, she says, Georgopoulos’ approach could become part of a more through PTSD diagnostic process, and he says he plans more ambitious studies beyond this first step. The researchers say they want to evaluate 500 vets and 500 civilians to further test their findings, and it will be important to investigate whether certain pre-existing conditions that are also PTSD symptoms, i.e. anxiety and insomnia, skew the results [CNET].

Related Content:
80beats: A Prompt Dose of Morphine Could Cut PTSD Risk For Wounded Soldiers
80beats: Can Playing Tetris Ease the Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress?
DISCOVER: Treating Agony With Ecstasy
Cosmic Variance: Guest Post: Tom Levenson on the Iraq War Suicides And the Material Basis of Consciousness

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
  • LegendaryTeeth

    I’ve seen this story all over the place lately, but the summaries never say anything about false positives or false negatives, only “90% accurate”. With those sample ratios you could just say “no PTSD” every time and still be 78% accurate. I’m sure the information is in there somewhere, but a summary really should include that information. Especially on a science-oriented site like this.

    We should expect that sort of information in our articles so we aren’t so easily mislead by statistics.

  • http://n/a john la berge

    well thats interesting. if i a multple a.b.i. owner with limited cognitive function is able to understand your response i should be limited to relating to statisticians i am only in possesion of the posibility of having sustained 70% of the trauma that i actually have sustained. lets see having a baseball bat broken over the top of my skull didn’t produce the right numbers but maybe a 1″ bar deing whaled over the back of my skull did. do you think being hit by a runaway 7 tone truck might produce the results you think are the only way of proving that a person actually according to your numbers has sustained a p. t. s. d. i have no idea where you found that scewball idea but it sure was not by having had a opportunity to have the S t kicked out of you by a pack of kids who thicnk get the freak is a fun game to play. you are truly the most pitifully ignorant cretin whose words have been allowed to be expressed.

  • Daniel

    Why is the American Enterprise Institute quoted here? It’s a very conservative institution and, I would think, not very likely to harbor a neutral opinion.


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