In the future post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which affects in 1 every 3 people who have a traumatic life experience, could potentially be diagnosed with a simple blood test rather than relying on patients to self-present symptoms to their doctor.
Current methods of medical diagnosis all rely on people reporting themselves, after a stressful, frightening or distressing event, but experts say that many (particularly military veterans) are unwilling to disclose symptoms.
So now researchers are looking for a method that can get around this hurdle and get treatment for patients faster, especially with the increasing prevalence of terror attacks, says lead author Dr Laurence de Nijs.
Dr De Nijs said: “Most of our stressful experiences don’t leave a long-lasting psychological scar. However, for some people who experience chronic severe stress or really terrible traumatic events, the stress does not go away.
“They are stuck with it and the body’s stress response is stuck in ‘on’ mode. This can lead to the development of mental illness such as PTSD.”
Now his team from the University of Maastricht have discovered a crucial physical, not psychological, difference in the microRNA (which regulates how active your genes are) of soldiers returning from deployment in Afghanistan.
Looking at data from a thousand Dutch soldiers who had been sent to the frontline combat, the researchers were able to isolate differences in 40 microRNA molecules compared to soldiers who had not fought.
And because microRNA travels around the body, circulated in the blood, researchers were able to acquire samples for testing with a simple blood test.
“We discovered that these small molecules, called miRNAs, are present in different amount in the blood of persons suffering from PTSD compared to trauma-exposed and control subjects without PTSD,” said de Nijs.
Differences in miRNA levels have been associated with certain diseases, such as some cancers, kidney disease, and even alcoholism. This regulatory role makes them also a candidate for investigation in PTSD.
He adds that there are limitations to the small pilot study but it is a good first step in identifying those who are at high and low risk of developing PTSD.
PTSD is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events, and people can often relive the traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks. And may experience feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt.
First documented during the World War I (as a result of shell shock in the trenches), PTSD wasn’t actually recognised as a medical condition in the UK until 1980.