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PTSD Can Be Identified by Measuring Brain Magnetic Fields


Researchers have found that they can measure the magnetic fields in the brain to identify individuals who are suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This finding is a major step toward being able to objectively diagnose PTSD and help the tens of thousands of individuals, including war veterans, who are afflicted with this often severe condition.

The study involved 74 US veterans from World War II, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan who displayed symptoms of PTSD. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines PTSD as an anxiety disorder that can develop after someone is exposed to a terrifying event or ordeal in which they experience or are threatened with grave physical harm, such as natural or human-caused disasters, physical attack, military combat, or accidents. According to the NIMH, approximately 7.7 million Americans age 18 and older have PTSD, and about 19 percent of Vietnam veterans experienced PTSD at some point after the war.

Participants in the current study displayed symptoms typical of PTSD, which can include flashbacks (reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms), persistent thoughts, feeling emotionally numb, sleep problems, being easily startled, nightmares, angry outbursts, strong feelings of guilt, and depression. These and other symptoms can severely impact the ability to work, maintain relationships, and other quality of life factors.

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Researchers at the University of Minnesota and Minneapolis VA Medical Center evaluated 74 veterans and 250 healthy controls, all of whom underwent a brain scan using magnetoencephalography (MEG), a noninvasive measurement of the magnetic fields of the brain. The study’s authors were able to differentiate PTSD patients from controls with more than 90 percent accuracy using the MEG.

The MEG works by recording the nerve interactions in the brain, which occur on a millisecond by millisecond basis. Measurements recorded by the MEG represent the activity of tens of thousands of brain cells, and the recordings can be taken much faster than possible with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Along with being able to diagnose PTSD, the researchers were also able to determine the severity of the symptoms. Apostolos Georgopoulos, MD, PhD, one of the study’s authors, noted that MEG can be used not only to identify PTSD patients but also “for assessing and monitoring disease progression and effects of therapy.”

Measurement of the brain’s magnetic fields using MEG has been utilized previously to detect other brain disorders, including multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease. This new use of MEG for identifying PTSD opens the door for improved diagnosis of the anxiety disorder, as well as a better means of monitoring the disease and evaluating the effectiveness of treatment. This is especially important as a growing number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are being diagnosed with PTSD.

National Institute of Mental Health
University of Minnesota/Minneapolis VA Medical Center