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Neurobiology illustration with patient and doctor

Neurobiology of PTSD

You survived a dangerous car accident several years ago but never gave its consequences much thought – until a close call at a busy intersection in your hometown unearthed memories you believed were long buried. Now you’re having trouble sleeping, eating, and don’t like automobiles – possible signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric ailment that may happen in someone who’s experienced or witnessed a trauma (natural disaster, serious accident, terrorism, war/combat, or sexual trauma) or has been threatened with death or other violence.

Once called “shell shock” or “combat fatigue,” PTSD isn’t something that happens to just combat veterans. The condition can harm anyone, regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity, and happens in about 3.5 percent of U.S. adults each year.

What is Neurobiology?

According to the Biology Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, neurobiology means “synapse formation, maintenance, and pruning; learning and memory; behavior; neuronal cell fate and diversity; axonal guidance; diseases of the nervous system.” Essentially, it’s the study of how the nervous system produces behavior and how it operates, which is a key focus in the ongoing battle to understand post-traumatic stress disorder and how it can be treated. More detailed information is available online.

PTSD Symptoms

Symptoms of PTSD fall into four categories:

  • Intrusive thoughts like repetitious, involuntary memories; troubling dreams; or flashbacks of the trauma.
  • Avoiding reminders of the trauma (avoiding activities, people, places, objects, and circumstances that can trigger bad memories).
  • Alterations in cognition and mood: faulty memories of the event, bad thoughts, or distorted feelings about yourself, others, and the world.
  • Alterations in arousal and reactivity: irritation, angry outbursts, reckless behavior, overly watchful of your surroundings, and easily startled.

What is Ketamine?

Ketamine is a powerful anesthetic that was introduced in the early 1960s. It underwent field trials during the fighting in Vietnam, gaining recognition for treating wounded U.S. combat troops in a pre-surgical setting. In the ensuing decades, research uncovered tantalizing proof that ketamine had other therapeutic value – helping relieve symptoms related to PTSD and other mental illnesses like depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, chronic pain, and other conditions not responsive to conventional therapy or medicine. 

Neurobiology of PTSD

A more thorough awareness of the neurobiology of post-traumatic stress disorder can help clarify how contemporary treatments work and how future solutions will affect how PTSD cases are handled, according to Kerry J. Ressler, MD, Ph.D., of Emory University in Atlanta.

Many researchers agree that PTSD is a pathological reaction to fear or an extreme version of the “fight or flight” response most people have when confronted with a dangerous or life-threatening situation. In many cases, the reaction is disproportionate to the actual danger.

Research findings that Dr. Ressler presented several years ago show that “Patients’ experiences are evident in the brain, specifically the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex, and the hippocampus. Hyperarousal and avoidance in PTSD are related to increased activation of the amygdala, and MRI scans of patients with PTSD show that the disorder is associated with lower hippocampal volume.”

A U.S. National Institute of Health study found that “The classic fight-or-flight response to perceived threat is a reflexive nervous phenomenon that has obvious survival advantages in evolutionary terms. However, the systems that organize the constellation of reflexive survival behaviors following exposure to perceived threat can under some circumstances become dysregulated in the process. Chronic dysregulation of these systems can lead to functional impairment in certain individuals who become “psychologically traumatized” and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A body of data accumulated over several decades has demonstrated neurobiological abnormalities in PTSD patients. Certain features of PTSD patients have been found to overlap in people who’ve suffered traumatic brain injury.”

Diagnosis & Treatment

To diagnose PTSD, your healthcare provider will likely:

  • Give you a physical exam to uncover medical problems which may be triggering your symptoms.
  • Do a psychological assessment which entails a discussion of your symptoms and signs and the trauma or events that precipitated them.
  • Compare your symptoms to criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Other tests and diagnostic tools for PTSD may be used. Once completed, your healthcare plan may include psychotherapy, self-help strategies, medicine like antidepressants, or ketamine infusion therapy.

Final Thoughts

Understanding the neurobiology of PTSD is critical in determining successful treatment programs, but therapy can’t begin until you’ve been diagnosed with the condition. If you experience severe and prolonged PTSD symptoms, contact us today to learn more about innovative treatments that may help you find relief.