On December 7, 1988, two massive earthquakes struck northern Armenia, leveling almost all buildings.
In the region, home to 200,000 people, more than 25,000 Armenians were killed by crushing injuries in the town of Spitak, most of them children, leaving survivors grieving and devastated.
Armenian-American Armen Goenjian and colleagues raced to the site to help.
“In a condensed area, there was horror, terror, morbidity, mortality," said Goenjian. "So these people witnessed severe trauma."
Goenjian helped establish two psychiatric clinics to help survivors. Over the course of 21 years, the clinics provided mental health services to the victims.
Using the Armenia earthquakes of 1988 as a springboard, Goenjian's researchers have identified two genes that play a role in post-traumatic stress disorder. Known as PTSD, the condition is marked by severe anxiety, stress and depression after victims live through a traumatic event.
Goenjian, a neuroscience researcher at the University of California Los Angeles, also oversaw the collection of blood samples from a dozen multi-generational families.
Back at UCLA, researchers analyzed the DNA from 200 survivors, looking for genetic vulnerability to PTSD.
They identified two gene variants that appear to play a role in the development of the psychiatric disorder. They are involved in how the brain regulates mood, thinking, attention and behavior.
People who had the two variants of the genes were most vulnerable to developing PTSD, according to criteria laid out by the American Psychiatric Association.
By identifying the effect of the genes — called COMT and TPH-2 — Goenjian says it may be possible to develop a diagnostic blood test that can help pinpoint those who are at highest risk of suffering from PTSD.
“You can do further testing with humans and animals, and then hopefully find pharmaceutical companies who will be interested in finding medications that will target these genes," said Goenjian.
Goenjian says there are other still-to-be identified genes involved in post-traumatic stress disorder, which also affects soldiers returning from war in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Goenjian and colleagues describe heredity of the two PTSD genes in the Journal of Affective Disorders.