Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that is caused by undergoing a traumatic experience. Symptoms of the disorder can develop within three months of the traumatic event, but it is possible that symptoms do not manifest themselves until years later. PTSD causes symptoms that are grouped into four categories: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in emotional reactions. Some risk factors for PTSD include having other mental health problems, lacking a strong support system, and having biological relatives with mental health problems.
Image Source: MoMo Productions
Researchers at UCLA have identified two genes that may influence a person’s risk of developing PTSD. In 1988, after a devastating 6.8 magnitude earthquake in Spitak, Armenia, Dr. Armen Goenjian, a researcher at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, traveled to Armenia and helped to establish psychiatric clinics that continued treating the survivors for 21 years after the earthquake. Twelve of the treated families agreed to have their blood samples sent to UCLA to allow researchers to search for a link between genes and the risk of developing psychiatric disorders. In 2012, researchers discovered that PTSD was more common in participants who had two specific gene variants that had been previously associated with depression.
More recently, Goenjian and Julia Baley, an adjunct assistant professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, focused on COMT and TPH-2, two genes that are involved in the regulation of the neurotransmitter dopamine and the hormone serotonin, respectively. Both dopamine and serotonin influence mood and behavior. Their study revealed an association between these gene variants and PTSD symptoms, suggesting that the genes contribute to the development of the disorder.
These findings could make it possible to screen people for their risk of developing PTSD using molecular methods as well as contribute to the development of new drug therapies to treat the disorder. Goenjian, however, indicated that it is likely that multiple genes are responsible for PTSD, and further investigation is required to confirm whether or not this is indeed the case.
Feature Image Source: genes on parade by Esther Dyson