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Post-traumatic stress diagnosed using magnetism

Jan. 21, 2010
Courtesy Institute of Physics
and World Science staff

The thick­et of anx­i­e­ty, re­cur­ring night­mares and related prob­lems that en­velops some war vet­er­ans and oth­er trau­ma sur­vivors has been di­ag­nosed us­ing a phys­i­cal test for the first time, re­search­ers say.

The find­ings are being called a major ad­vance in stu­dy­ing the condition—post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTSD)—which in the past was de­tect­a­ble only through psy­cho­log­i­cal screen­ing.

U.S. war vet­er­ans were in­volved in clin­i­cal tri­als that sci­en­tists say ap­pear to have di­ag­nosed post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der us­ing mag­ne­toen­ceph­al­o­graphy, a non-in­vas­ive meas­ure­ment of mag­net­ic fields in the brain. (Image courtesy U.S. NIH)


This se­vere anx­i­e­ty dis­or­der, en­shrined in pop­ular cons­cious­ness through films such as the Ram­bo se­ries about a tor­m­ented Viet­nam veteran, of­ten stems from war but can re­sult from any trau­matic event. The dis­or­der can man­i­fest it­self in flash­backs, re­cur­ring night­mares, an­ger or hy­per­vi­gil­ance.

U.S. war vet­er­ans were in­volved in clin­i­cal tri­als that sci­en­tists say ap­pear to have di­ag­nosed the dis­or­der us­ing mag­ne­toen­ceph­al­o­graphy, a non-in­vas­ive mea­s­ure­ment of mag­net­ic fields in the brain.

Con­ven­tion­al brain scans had failed to de­tect the dis­or­der, said the re­search­ers, whose work ap­peared Jan. 20 in the Jour­nal of Neu­ral En­gi­neer­ing.

The re­search­ers from the Min­ne­ap­o­lis Vet­er­an Af­fairs Med­i­cal Cen­ter and the Univers­ity of Min­ne­so­ta, led by Apos­to­los P Geor­go­pou­los and Bri­an En­g­dahl, worked with the 74 vet­er­ans who had served in World War II, Vi­et­nam, Af­ghan­i­stan or Iraq, and had been di­ag­nosed with be­hav­iour­al symp­toms of PTSD. Al­so par­ti­ci­pat­ing in the study were a group of peo­ple with­out the dis­or­der.

With more than 90 percent ac­cu­ra­cy, the re­search­ers said, they were able to tell apart PTSD pa­tients from healthy sub­jects us­ing a “syn­chronous neu­ral in­ter­ac­tions test.” This in­volves an­a­lys­ing the mag­net­ic charges re­leased when popula­t­ions of brain cells con­nect or “cou­ple.”

The abil­ity to ob­jec­tively di­ag­nose PTSD is seen as a first step to­wards help­ing those af­flicted with the dis­or­der. 

“The ex­cel­lent re­sults ob­tained of­fer ma­jor prom­ise for the use­ful­ness of the syn­chro­nous neu­ral in­ter­ac­tions test for dif­fer­en­tial di­ag­no­sis as well as for mon­i­tor­ing dis­ease pro­gres­sion and for eval­u­at­ing the ef­fects of psy­cho­log­i­cal and/or drug treat­ments,” the re­search­ers wrote.

This work fol­lows suc­cess in de­tecting oth­er brain dis­eases, such as Alzheimer’s and mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis, us­ing the mag­net­ic tech­nique, sci­en­tists said. The meth­od was in­vented by Geor­go­pou­los and the lat­est re­search was funded by the U.S. De­part­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs.


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The thicket of anxiety, recurring nightmares and anger that envelops some war veterans and other trauma survivors has been diagnosed using objective, physical criteria for the first time, researchers say. The findings are seen as a great advance in studying the condition—post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—which in the past was detectable only through psychological screening. U.S. war veterans were involved in clinical trials that scientists say appear to have diagnosed the disorder using magnetoencephalography, a non-invasive measurement of magnetic fields in the brain. Conventional brain scans had failed to detect the disorder, said the researchers, whose work appeared Jan. 20 in the Journal of Neural Engineering. The researchers from the Minneapolis Veteran Affairs Medical Center and the University of Minnesota, led by Apostolos P Georgopoulos and Brian Engdahl, worked with the 74 veterans, all of whom had served in either World War 2, Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq, and had been diagnosed with behavioural symptoms of PTSD. Also participating in the study were a group of people without the disorder. With more than 90 per cent accuracy, the researchers said, they were able to tell apart PTSD patients from healthy subjects using a “synchronous neural interactions test.” This involves analysing the magnetic charges released when populations of brain cells connect or “couple.” The ability to objectively diagnose PTSD is seen as a first step towards helping those afflicted with this severe anxiety disorder which often stems from war but can be a result of any traumatic event. The disorder can manifest itself in flashbacks, recurring nightmares, anger or hypervigilance. “The excellent results obtained offer major promise for the usefulness of the synchronous neural interactions test for differential diagnosis as well as for monitoring disease progression and for evaluating the effects of psychological and/or drug treatments,” the researchers wrote. This work follows success in detecting other brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis, using the magnetic technique, scientists said. The method was invented by Georgopoulos and the latest research was funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.