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News Item: Biology of PTSD

Epigenetic Changes Linked to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder [1]

Most people who live through a traumatic event don’t develop Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Knowing what differentiates those who do from everyone else could provide valuable leads for prevention and treatment.

In a recent study described in Science News [1], researchers discovered that people who suffer from PTSD have more genetic changes to their DNA than those who don’t.   It’s not clear, however, whether these alterations resulted from the trauma or predisposed individuals to develop a symptomatic response to it.

DNA is not immutable.  Genes can be altered through a process called methylation whereby a methyl molecule gets tacked onto a gene, limiting the gene’s ability to do its job.  Environmental factors can impact genes in this way.

One type of change to the PTSD group’s DNA involved less methylation in certain immune system genes, supporting previous research that implicated PTSD in immune system dysfunction.  Conversely, certain genes involved in brain cell growth showed increased methylation, which would inhibit production of proteins necessary for brain  functioning.

How these changes relate to PTSD and how they get expressed in the body still remains a question that hopefully future research will answer.