How Does PTSD Affect Brain Chemistry? - Chromatography Explores
May 22 2019
It is one of those phrases that seems to have entered the general conversation in recent years - post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. This is because we talk about mental health issues in a more open way, society no longer just sweeps them under the carpet or hides them away like a deranged aunt in a locked attic room. But what exactly is PTSD and how does it affect our brains? Let’s take a brief look at PTSD and see how researchers are starting to discover ways it affects our brain chemistry.
PTSD - a brief overview
The NHS definition of PTSD is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events. Nowadays, PTSD is described by a set of rigid criteria laid down in medical journals. But, the first diagnosis of PTSD was possibly during WWI when Charles Myers coined the term shell shock to describe soldiers who were crying, shivering, frightened and had flashbacks after exposure to shocking combat scenes.
PTSD causes the patient to relive traumatic events through nightmares and flashbacks - this can lead to feeling of isolation and guilt. Physical symptoms can include insomnia and a lack of concentration. The onset of PTSD is usually a traumatic event such as combat, a road accident or an assault. It can occur immediately after the event, or at any period after including several years. It can severely impact a patient’s day-to-day quality of life.
It can be successfully treated, starting by monitoring the symptoms over a period of time to see if they improve. Psychological therapies like CBT or counselling can also be used, as can pharmaceutical treatments like antidepressants. But relatively little is known about how the brain chemistry is altered in PTSD patients, until now.
Changing brain chemistry
A recent report in the journal Chronic Stress has looked at how neurosteroids levels in the brain change in patients suffering from PTSD. They are simply steroids that act on the cells in the brain. They are either endogenous or can be synthesized by an endocrine gland and transported to the brain. Because of their activity, it is believed that they could have clinical applications, helping patients with conditions from epilepsy to traumatic brain injury.
The study sampled sections from the medial orbital frontal cortex in frozen brain samples of people who had PTSD and also controls from patients who did not. They analysed the brains using gas chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry for neurosteroid levels. Chromatography is a powerful analytical tool as discussed in the article, Column Overloading - An issue of some sensitivity.
The team report that there were changes in both men’s and women’ brains when patients had PTSD. In men’s brain’s the levels of allopregnanolone decreased in PTSD sufferers, whilst in women’s brains the levels of pregnenolone increased. The conclude: ‘To our knowledge, this is the first report of neurosteroid levels in postmortem brain tissue of subjects with PTSD.’
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