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Scientists Work to Unravel Mysteries of How Anxiety, PTSD Affect Brain

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- A group of Bay Area scientists have unraveled some surprising secrets about post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD which one day could lead to better therapies and treatments.

The team recently published its findings in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

At UC Berkeley, neuroscientist Dr. Daniela Kaufer and now UCSF post-doc Kimberly Long -- along with UCSF and San Francisco VA scientists Radiologist Dr. Linda Chao and Psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Neylan -- may have provided a convincing reason why some people are resilient to trauma and others are susceptible.

According to statistics, 70% of American adults experience at least one traumatic event in a lifetime. 20% pf those will develop PTSD, and their symptoms vary dramatically.

The cost of PTSD treatment for individuals, families, and society is estimated to be as much as $64 billion a year.

While the available treatments are generally effective, most experts tell KPIX 5 that they don't work for everyone.

In their research, the scientists made two important discoveries: that anxiety and traumatic stress are linked to increased myelin in a part of the brain where there is less myelin; and that where the increased myelin is found correlates to the particular symptom.

Myelin is a layer of fatty substances and proteins that wrap around neurons and helps to transmit signals. The increased myelin is found in areas of the brain mostly associated with memory.

The increased myelin appears to enhance a circuit to a memory and make it less flexible to other experiences. It may lay down a connection in your brain that affects your ability to respond quickly to a fearful stimulus. But then you lose the flexibility to not always respond in such a reactive way.

Specific symptoms of PTSD were associated with specific areas of the gray matter of the brain. If the enhanced myelin is located in the hippocampus, there is a link to what's called avoidance behavior. Those exhibiting fear have increased myelin in the amygdala, and those who suffer from anxiety show increased myelination in a region of the brain called the dentate gyrus.

The hope is that if patients can be properly classified into specific subtypes of PTSD, more targeted treatments may provide better or longer lasting relief. Another avenue of research is seeing how doctors can treat the myelin in the brain and perhaps reverse the increase.

The researchers at Cal used laboratory rats and a type of viral gene therapy. The UCSF and San Francisco VA medical researchers figured out a way to detect the myelin on special MRI scans. They then analyzed at a few dozen brain scans of military vets, some of whom were diagnosed with PTSD.

What the Cal researchers discovered were then also found and confirmed in the scans of vets diagnosed with the disorder.

Now the researchers hope to expand their understanding by starting a new study in the Bay Area. They are looking for young adults ages 25 to 35 who had their first traumatic experience as an adult. Individuals who qualify to participate in the study may be compensated up to $175.

Additional information is available on the UCSF Stress and Health Research Program website.

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