Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a commonly discussed psychological problem, but it’s one that, for all the sufferers we know of, remains infuriatingly opaque. Mental illness tends to have a physical “correlate,” something in the body that corresponds to the onset of symptoms, and in the case of PTSD, we just haven’t been able to locate it. But scientists working for the U.S. armed forces may finally have the cause.
The New York Times has an in-depth look at the history and the cutting edge science of PTSD for which they spoke to neuropathologist Daniel Perl (among others) about what we know of the disorder’s causes and possible future treatments. Perl and his colleagues have proposed that subtle scarring between the gray matter and the white matter of the brain caused by blast waves, concussions, and other brain injuries, which they’re calling brown dust, might be the physical correlate for PTSD’s mental symptoms.
These scars tend to collect at the parts of the brain responsible for sleep, cognition, and other injury-prone areas. Interestingly, the scars also seem to grow as a pattern over time, which might explain why PTSD symptoms can get worse as time goes on. Probably the most worrying implication, though, is that this might be a commonplace symptom of being near blast waves. Studies of “breacher teams,” experts who place small explosive charges on doors to get them off their hinges, have found signs of this damage even when the breachers never go near a war zone. The implication is that brain damage, near modern explosives and thus during modern warfare, is essentially impossible to avoid.
It’s worth remembering that treating a physical correlate for a psychological illness doesn’t treat the emotional aspect. And it’s not clear, yet, how this scarring might be prevented, or if it even can be. But finding the physical correlate is an important step in solving a debilitating psychological problem.
(Via Boing Boing)