Scientists have developed a tool to predict risk for PTSD and subsequent suicide among soldiers returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tel Aviv University scientists, led by Prof. Talma Hendler, developed the screening device by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to view the brain of at-risk soldiers.

According to some, approximately 20 percent of all returning soldiers are psychologically damaged and at risk.

Studying a group of 50 Israeli soldiers — trained medics who experienced extreme stress in live combat zones — Prof. Hendler and her graduate student Roee Admon, in collaboration with Col. Dr. Gad Lubin from the Israel Defense Forces, were able to predict which soldiers would develop significant increases in stress symptoms such as mood decline, intrusive thoughts, and sleep disturbance.

The tool will permit clinicians to diagnose and treat these soldiers immediately before the stressors of combat lead to chronic psychological problems. Validation of the tool will allow the technique to be used within the general population.

The research was published in the August issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Prof. Hendler’s research shows functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can be used to forecast which soldiers might be vulnerable to stress psychopathology in the future.

The noninvasive imaging method records the brain activity of military personnel before they enter active duty. Using this baseline as a reference, the researchers can predict which soldier is more prone to exhibit after exposure combat-related stress symptoms — symptoms that can trigger PTSD or major depression.

The TAU researchers measured the levels of “stress symptoms” twice: first when the soldiers were drafted, then again a year and a half later, during their active duty in combat units. The soldiers were also asked a series of questions evaluating their experience in the army. With this data, researchers developed predictive brain measurements for whether a soldier would develop stress.

Having such an early biological marker, says Prof. Hendler, means that diagnosis and treatment can begin immediately following exposure to situational trauma. It is the first fMRI-based study in the world to measure brain activation under stress over a long period of time with respect to prior to stress.

“Looking at the part of the brain called the amygdala, we were able to predict how many stress symptoms of PTSD an individual soldier would develop,” says Prof. Hendler. She notes that other brain activity was modified by the stress giving indications of the appropriate intensity and approach of treatment after the stress and trauma set in. Prof. Hendler is currently planning a larger study in this direction.

While Prof. Hendler doesn’t believe that the fMRI should be used prejudicially to weed soldiers from certain units, she says that it does give specialists a new set of clues as to how to treat soldiers early and effectively, decreasing the rates of military suicide. This field of science is applied in a growing specialty known as “personalized medicine.”

“This tool can help provide tailored therapy to the afflicted and at a very early stage could identify the extreme cases that might otherwise go unnoticed,” says Prof. Hendler.

Source: Tel Aviv University