Stephen Kintz
Apr 8, 2012

Military medicine bringing advances in PTSD and genetic disorders

Military medicine is advancing our understanding of PTSD.Everyone loves military technology. The media loves to cover the latest military gadget or expensive toy. There have been entire shows dedicated to the past, present and future of military weaponry, and, of course, these things are important. This technology allows American soldiers and their allies to be more effective on and off the battlefield; plus, it helps keep soldiers safe on and off the battlefield. Yet there is more to military technology than the latest gun or plane. Just as important, though less covered, are the important medical advances to help veterans.

In a six-year RAND Corporation survey, an estimated 20 percent of veterans show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is characterized by anxiety, flashbacks and mood swings. The disorder is often destructive for the patient’s life, family and career. Veterans suffering from PTSD often have a difficult time keeping jobs and staying out of trouble. Luckily for veterans, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veteran Affairs are beginning to take cognitive neuroscience seriously. The Department of Defense allocated $240 million for cognitive neuroscience research in 2011, some of which will go towards finding ways to treat PTSD.

Of course, the large number of veterans with PTSD has already led to advances in psychiatry. Psychiatrists studying PTSD have decided to add several symptoms to PTSD in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the manual used to diagnosis psychiatric disorders. PTSD is being redefined to include the symptoms of shame, guilt and self-blame. The scientists researching PTSD claim that while it is true that PTSD can be caused by witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event, the conditions of war can also trigger a veteran to blame themselves for actions committed during the war. The researchers are hoping that by adding these new symptoms, doctors will be able to detect PTSD in more veterans and they are hoping this new definition might make more veterans seek treatment. 

20 percent of veterans experience PTSD.Of course, furthering our understanding of the causes of PTSD will also destigmatize the disorder. So it is especially lucky that scientists from the University of California, Los Angeles have already identified two genes that when present make people more susceptible to PTSD. The research was conducted by taking DNA samples from survivors of the 1988 Armenia earthquake. The genes identified are linked to serotonin production. This breakthrough could allow the military to identify individuals with a higher risk for PTSD before the individuals develop symptoms or enter combat. It could also lead to PTSD being less stigmatized by the military community as a mental weakness and, hopefully, lead to more veterans seeking treatment. Moreover, since the genes are linked to serotonin production, this study might lead to a higher number of veterans receiving serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which have shown some success in helping individuals cope with the symptoms of PTSD.

Yet veterans are not known for standing around. They have served their country once, and they are now serving the medical community for future generations. In a Milwaukee Veterans Affairs (VA)  hospital, veterans are donating DNA samples and detailed medical history reports to create the largest medical database in history. The medical database should aid a future generation of researchers in finding genetic links to diseases and possibly better treatments for disorders affecting veterans.

It is easy to enjoy the new gadgets advertised by the military, but it is research into disorders, like PTSD and other medical conditions, that will improve the life of returning veterans.