Study finds PTSD risk can be predicted before deployment

AUSTIN (KXAN) — For Randy Waters, there’s no greater service than serving your country. He was in the Marine Corps from 1969 to 1975, after following in the footsteps of his dad. Waters also served in the Texas Army National Guard.

“I was a Marine brat so I always wanted to be in the military, the Marines,” said Waters.

These days, he spends a lot of time helping the men and women coming back from war. While retired, Waters has a master’s degree in therapeutic recreation. Whether he’s helping veterans get back outdoors or just being there for a late night phone call, Waters does what he can to help those struggling.

“I think about all the Vietnam veterans I know. I think about my dad, who probably had PTSD, but there were no services,” said Waters.

Today there are not only services, but more research underway to better understand combat-stress disorders.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin are studying cortisol and testosterone in soldiers. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is released as part of the body’s flight-or-fight response to life-threatening emergencies. Testosterone is one of the most important of the male sex hormones.

Their findings, published in the journal of Psychoneuroendocrinology, look at cortisol’s critical role in the emergence of PTSD, but only when levels of testosterone are suppressed.

“Recent evidence points to testosterone’s suppression of cortisol activity, and vice versa. It is becoming clear to many researchers that you can’t understand the effects of one without simultaneously monitoring the activity of the other,” said UT Austin professor of psychology Robert Josephs, the first author of the study. “Prior attempts to link PTSD to cortisol may have failed because the powerful effect that testosterone has on the hormonal regulation of stress was not taken into account.”

UT researchers studied the hormones of 120 U.S. soldiers before deployment and tracked their monthly combat experiences in Iraq.

Before deployment, soldiers were administered a stress simulating COinhalation challenge to examine their cortisol and testosterone reactivity to stress. Researchers found that soldiers who exhibited less change in both testosterone and cortisol levels in response to the challenge were more likely to later show PTSD symptoms in response to combat stress in Iraq.

However, soldiers who showed an elevated testosterone or an elevated cortisol response to the CO2 inhalation challenge were less likely to develop PTSD.

“We are still analyzing more data from this project, which we hope will reveal additional insights into risk for combat-related stress disorders and ultimately how to prevent them,” said Michael Telch, clinical psychology professor and corresponding author of the study.

In the future, Dr. Telch hopes to extend his PTSD risk factor research to other trauma populations such as first responders and patients presenting at the emergency room following a traumatic accident.

Waters says he’s grateful to see research like this happening. “If they could figure out the magic pill, it would stop a problem that has been around for centuries. PTSD is not new,” said Waters.

While there may never be a magic pill for the stress disorders, researchers hope more data could one day help prevent them.

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