One of the greatest challenges of the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has been the number of service members suffering from long-term effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Most medical professionals have found it difficult to develop meaningful and successful treatment programs, never mind a possible cure. But a small group of researchers has focused their attentions on predicting who is susceptible to PSTD prior to deployment, with hopes of developing personalized treatment and even possible prevention for future generations.
Following nearly a decade of armed conflict the term post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a common part of the American vocabulary. With as many as 30% of combat veterans exhibiting at least some symptoms of PTSD it is not hard to find someone you know, work with or are related to who is a victim. Some of these veterans go about their daily lives with no outward signs of disability and experience only minor problems adjusting to civilian life. Others find themselves at the opposite end of the PTSD spectrum suffering from debilitating stress-related disorders making it nearly impossible to resume pre-war existence. Sadly, a growing number of PTSD sufferers find current medical treatment inadequate and resort to self-medication or alcohol to coop. Some even find the suicide to be the only release. Unfortunately, while the medical community has begun to understand how PTSD affects returning veterans they still have little understanding of why it occurs, to begin with. Why is it one veteran can be haunted for years by their experience while his buddy, even the guy who shared his fighting position, seemingly unaffected? How can a soldier perform multiple tours never showing any sign of PTSD and suddenly find one more tour is one too many?
Part of this is due to limited experience with PTSD. Although it has been around since the beginning of war, it was not really understood until 20-30 years ago. Prior to that, it was referred to as “battle fatigue”, “shell shock” and a host of other terms which indicated the sufferer was simply weary of returning to the front lines. General George Patton infamously referred to a sufferer as a coward just prior to reportedly slapping him. Plus, there was no understanding that the symptoms could develop at any point during or even years after experiencing combat.
Fortunately, we have come a long way since WWII and today’s medical professionals not only recognize PTSD as a legitimate injury but are working to discover a cause, which will hopefully lead to a cure or even prevention. One of the most promising areas of study is focused on identifying biological markers or conditions which would identify those most prone to developing PTSD prior to even deploying.
The study was conducted by the University of Texas at Austin, with the results authored by Professor of Psychology Robert Joseph’s, and focused on identifying a link between hormone levels and subsequent tendency to develop PTSD. Although the findings are limited in scope and still being reviewed the initial results are encouraging.
This is not the first study to attempt to identify a link between hormone levels and PTSD. In the 1980s a group of researchers believed that measuring the levels of Cortisol, a stress hormone released as part of your fight or flight reaction could be used to predict PTSD. However, in the decades since no conclusive results have been developed and researchers were left believing the link existed but not knowing what it might be.
The current study took the theory a step further and looked at not only Cortisol but also testosterone levels. The average person identifies testosterone as a male sex hormone but it is also responsible for a host of other functions including hair growth, muscle development, and bone density. It is also a powerful natural anabolic steroid that helps to regulate hormonal responses- including cortisol release during stress. By looking at BOTH Cortisol and testosterone UT researchers believe they have achieved where earlier studies failed, at least on a small scale.
The UT study only involved 120 soldiers, all without prior combat experience. Prior to deployment, each soldier was subjected to a controlled stress test, after which both Cortisol and testosterone levels were measured. While deployed the test subjects completed monthly online assessments, providing researchers with information concerning current duties and related issues which would indicate increases in stress. The pre-deployment results, deployment reports, and post-deployment PTSD screening are currently being evaluated, but early results indicate those who failed to register increase testosterone level during stress testing were more prone to develop PTSD symptoms later.
As stated earlier, the results are still being reviewed and it is too early to tell how the potential link between testosterone, Cortisol, and PTSD will play out. But, if the links are confirmed, the bigger question will become how to use this information.It is expected that early possibilities will include developing potential treatments for those already suffering from PTSD. However, what then? Will researchers develop a supplement that service members could take to ward off PTSD? Or will the screening be used to filter out potential recruits, or at least assigned them to non-combat duties? As much hope as this may mean for current sufferers of PTSD these unanswered questions could be equally concerning for future generations of service members or first responders (who are also being diagnosed with PTSD at an alarming rate).
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