Military Launching Preemptive Strikes Against Mental Illness

Genetic testing and brain scans for new recruits attempt to cut out PTSD-prone soldiers

With nearly 1.8 million U.S. soldiers having rotated through Iraq and Afghanistan and another troop escalation expected in coming weeks, researchers are doing double-time to define the causes of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to better serve troops returning from war. With two wars going and no end in sight, scientists have quite an abundance of subjects on which to carry out their research.

Scientists and armed forces medical personnel have long been baffled by PTSD's seemingly arbitrary manifestation; a group of warfighters can experience the same battle with the same degree of intensity, yet some are able to continue their lives normally while others are not. Often PTSD can simmer below the surface, becoming symptomatic several years after the initial trauma. But while there's no cure for PTSD, prior studies have shown that strategies like having a reliable social net and a good coping strategy can be effective in warding off the symptoms of PTSD. The problem is identifying which soldiers may be quietly harboring PTSD without knowing it.

Therefore, the idea is not to cure PTSD outright but to identify predictors of the disorder -- possibly genetic biomarkers or elevated stress hormone levels -- that indicate a soldier's predisposition toward the disorder before he or she enters combat. Once understood, the presence of PTSD predictors won't allow soldiers to shirk combat duty, but it will give the armed services a chance to mitigate the effects of PTSD by getting soldiers into treatments early rather than waiting for the outward signs -- outbursts, nightmares, flashbacks, social withdrawal -- to manifest themselves.

At Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base in California, soldiers bound for combat are undergoing a battery of tests ranging from biomarker analysis to psychiatric image association tests in which soldiers are shown pictures of various stressful situations while their stress levels are measured. Another study by University of Texas researchers followed soldiers deployed from nearby Fort Bragg through their combat experiences. Soldiers also provided a DNA sample, an MRI brain scan and a CO2 inhalation test to evaluate their reactions to stress.

Unsurprisingly, preliminary findings in the UT study show that soldiers who reacted strongly to the carbon dioxide test also showed more prevalent symptoms of PTSD, which is exactly the kind of predictor researchers are looking for. It's a very military-esque way of dealing with an issue: assess the situation, locate the source of the problem, then contain its ability to render harm to our side. Given the narrow likelihood of either war coming to a close in the foreseeable future, hopefully this research will at least help more troops returning home return to normalcy as well.