By Magali Haas, MD, PhD
President and CEO, Cohen Veterans Bioscience
Stress is unavoidable in modern life. But the exhaustion of a 12-hour work shift or the surge of adrenaline from a close call in highway traffic pales next to the emotional and physical tsunami faced by people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The condition affects millions — an estimated 8% of people — at some point during their lives.
Military veterans are especially vulnerable— 20% of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan came home with PTSD or depression. And more than 350,000 service members have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury since 2000, many of them experiencing cognitive or mental problems as a result. The alarming suicide rate among veterans — 20 end their lives every day — is testimony to psychic wounds that remain long after combat ends. If we can understand why some people develop anxiety, depression, memory problems and other symptoms after trauma while others emerge relatively unscathed, we can help prevent and perhaps even reverse PTSD.
PTSD and traumatic brain injury are often referred to as “invisible wounds,” and they are exactly that — subtle shifts in the brain’s structure and function that can devastate a person’s mood, mental state and impulse control. Traumatic syndromes resembling PTSD have been described at least since the early 20th century. Yet in the 21st century we still do not have objective tests to diagnose the condition. While psychotherapy can be effective as a first-line treatment for some, only about half of patients respond to treatment and fewer achieve full remission. Our inability to predict who will respond to a given treatment, and why, speaks to a fundamental lack of knowledge about the roots of PTSD.
Fortunately, recent advances in brain imaging, genetics and other areas are bringing these invisible wounds into focus. The promise of these technologies is illustrated by the Global PTSD Genetics program, which brings together more than 40 academic centers from across the world to share DNA samples for analysis. The goal is to understand the genetic underpinnings of PTSD and get insights into its causes that can result in better diagnostics and treatments. Cohen Veterans Bioscience (CVB) spearheads the effort in partnership with the Stanley Center at the Broad Institute and the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium (PGC).
With millions of veterans and civilians suffering — many of them in silence — we have a moral responsibility to move forward as efficiently as we can in developing better ways to diagnose and treat PTSD and traumatic brain injury. We should be doing more coordinated research and doing it smarter, so that no one who experiences trauma has to suffer its effects for a lifetime.
Magali Haas, MD, PhD, is the CEO & President of Cohen Veterans Bioscience, a 501(c)3 non-profit that focuses on PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI) research. The organization’s mission is to improve the detection and treatment of these conditions and related ones to lessen their burden on service members, veterans, and their families.
To learn more about PTSD, please see WebMD’s special report, Faces of PTSD.