Simple blood test can detect PTSD biomarkers

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A new study has revealed that people suffering from or facing a high risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) show specific patterns in four biomarkers measurable with a simple blood test.

The research was presented on Monday at the annual meeting of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, held March 25–28 in Seattle.

PTSD can occur after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. It is diagnosed based on symptoms such as flashbacks, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, negative thoughts, memory problems, and avoidance of triggering situations. Since other disorders have similar symptoms, diagnosing PTSD can be challenging.

This research, involving more than 1,000 military members, represents one of the largest prospective study to assess PTSD’s biomarkers over time, according to the study investigators.

Biomarkers, which reflect biological processes, can provide an objective measure of physiological changes associated with diseases, including PTSD.

The researchers analyzed the four biomarkers in blood samples from active-duty military members taken before a 10-month deployment, three days after returning, and three to six months after returning. The biomarkers included the glycolytic ratio, a measure of how the body breaks down sugar to produce energy; arginine, an amino acid that plays a role in the immune and cardiovascular systems; serotonin, a chemical messenger that helps regulate mood and sleep; and glutamate, a chemical messenger involved in learning and memory. All biomarkers had previously been linked to stress, depression, anxiety, and mental health disorders.

The researchers divided participants into groups based on PTSD measures and mental resilience, then compared the four biomarkers among the different groups. Participants were classified as either having PTSD, sub-threshold PTSD, or no PTSD, depending on their diagnosis and symptoms. Researchers classified participants’ resilience based on factors including PTSD, anxiety, sleep quality, alcohol use, combat exposures, traumatic brain injury, and general physical and mental health. Previous studies showed that people with low resilience were much more likely to develop PTSD after deployment than those with high resilience.

Comparing these biomarkers in people with different resilience and PTSD levels, the results showed that those with PTSD or sub-threshold PTSD had significantly higher glycolytic ratios, significantly lower serotonin levels, higher glutamate levels, and lower arginine levels than those with high resilience. These associations were independent of gender, age, body mass index, smoking, and caffeine consumption.

Researchers believe these biomarkers have potential value in predicting an individual’s likelihood of developing PTSD, diagnosing PTSD, and monitoring the response to early intervention or prevention strategies that could reduce the severity of symptoms or prevent the disorder from developing.

“Improved methods of screening and predicting PTSD could inform better treatment approaches by providing a deeper understanding of the underlying biological mechanisms of the disorder,” presenter Stacy-Ann Miller, a researcher at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, said in a statement. “This could lead to the development of more targeted and effective treatments for PTSD or to identify specific subtypes of PTSD, which may respond differently to different treatments.”