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Scientists Developing Blood Test for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

  • Jessica Berman

There may some day be a blood test to determine whether someone suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or is at risk for the psychiatric condition. Experts say such a test could lead to a treatment for PTSD, which is often seen in soldiers and others who experience severe trauma.

Veterans who have seen a lot of death and destruction in armed conflict, survivors of natural disasters, and rape victims often suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. These invisible psychological wounds are marked by emotional arousal, severe anxiety and depression as well as flashbacks and nightmares of the horrific event. Even with therapy and antidepressants, the disorder is difficult to treat.

Now, researchers at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City have identified a blood marker that appears associated with PTSD.

A pattern of gene activity involved in regulation of the stress hormone corticosterone was seen in the brain tissue of rats exposed to soiled cat litter for ten minutes. Cats are a natural predator of rodents, which become fearful and anxious at the scent of feline waste.

The animals showed anxiety in a maze test and startled easily when exposed to loud noise.

But some stressed-out rats were given corticosterone an hour after exposure to the cat scent, and researchers found that those rodents showed less arousal and anxiety compared to untreated rats one week after exposure to the litter.

Icahn neuroscientist Nikolaos Daskalakis says Swiss doctors noted that corticosterone had a calming effect in people who were given the hormone following automobile accidents.

“So, this was a serendipitous finding - that they observed that .. the ones who were under those treatments had lower chances to get psychiatric symptoms after," said Daskalakis.

Daskalakis says that finding may lead to the development of a test for PTSD risk. It would measure glucocorticoid receptor activity in the blood. Those are genes that become activated in the presence of stress. Like a key fitting into a lock, the hormone corticosterone, produced naturally by the body, connects to the receptor and has a calming effect.

In some rodents, and apparently in some people, the pathway appears to be defective, and this puts them at higher risk for PTSD.

“Hopefully we will end up having a treatment, yes. But we need to do a lot of detailed biological studies in humans and in animals too to arrive there," said Daskalakis.

Daskalakis notes that Post-Traumatic Stress disorder not only affects the brain but the body’s regulation of the stress response.

An article on a potential blood test for PTSD is being published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.