This week, NPR had a story about a man who had a confirmed case of concussion and then post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after coming home from war.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has produced many cases like this man, where it starts as a concussion and ultimately turns out to be PTSD. The man profiled in the story experienced fear of IEDs, or improvised explosive devices. He would avoid trash piles because that is normally where they would hide IEDs.
The man profiled started school when he returned home. He noticed he started to have trouble with math problems he had no trouble with before.
“At one point we got this battalion that went to Helmand province in Afghanistan, and literally 50 percent of them were complaining of blast exposures and symptoms. I got concerned.” – Dewleen Baker, a psychiatrist at UCSD and the VA San Diego Healthcare System
Baker and her team studied more than 1600 servicemen, who were assessed before they were deployed and three months after returning. The study found that servicemen who suffered a traumatic brain injury were twice as likely to suffer from PTSD. See the “Nightmare of a Combat Injury” for more information on TBI in war.
Another relevant experiment occurred at the University of California, Los Angeles, where scientists compared healthy rats to rats with traumatic brain injury. All of the rats were treated with a kind of behavioral conditioning known to induce fear. The rats with traumatic brain injury experienced more fear than they would have normally. When they looked at cells in the amygdala, they found changes that would amplify an animal’s response to a fearful stimulus in the brains with TBI. The amygdala is the part of the brain that decides whether to be afraid or not. That is how they think that TBI increases the risk of PTSD.
Baker and her colleague used MEG to study the brains of regular civilians and servicemen. They found in people with concussions there was overactivity in the amygdala and not enough activity in the part of the brain that controls emotions. They referred to it as like having a car with no brake.
What’s interesting about this story is that Baker has plans to expand her research, and she hired the very man who was profiled earlier in the story. When he got out of school, he wanted to research the problems he experienced himself. Baker’s research was at the top of the list, and she hired him to help her.
The experiments show that PTSD is actually a physical condition, not just a mental one. It actually is represented in the brain in real ways. It’s not all in one’s head. It’s actually an imbalance in the brain’s circuitry.