Indiana University Researchers Develop Blood Test for PTSD

wife holding hand of husband in military uniform

Researchers at Indiana University have developed a blood test that could help more accurately diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The study tracked more than 250 veterans in over 600 visits at the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis, attempting to identify a molecule in the blood to track stress intensity. The research was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Over a decade, they evaluated gene expression in participants in both low- and high-stress states. They narrowed the research down to 285 individual biomarkers related to 269 genes, which were compared to other identified markers of stress and aging.

PTSD occurs when a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic or terrifying event, typically where significant physical harm happened or could have happened. This results in a long-term psychological response marked by shock, anger, nervousness, fear and guilt. These are common in anyone experiencing this type of trauma, but in PTSD the feeling continues and often become worse, affecting their ability to have a normal life.

The symptoms most often crop up within three months of the original trauma, sometimes not for years. Severity and duration vary. Broadly, PTSD symptoms fall into four categories, including reliving the event, such as with flashbacks, hallucinations and nightmares; avoidance behavior, where the patient avoids peoples, places, or situations that remind him or her of the trauma; increased arousal, meaning excessive emotions, difficulty relating to other people, difficulties in falling or staying asleep, irritability and concentration problems. Physical symptoms such as increased blood pressure, rapid breathing, nausea and diarrhea may occur. The fourth category is negative cognition and mood, which can include guilt, estrangement, and intense memories.

Alexander Niculescu, a psychiatry professor who led the study, stated, “PTSD is a disorder that affects a lot of veterans, especially those involved in combat. It’s also an underappreciated and underdiagnosed disorder among the civilian population, whether it be the result of abuse, rape, violence or accidents.”

The test is likely several years away from becoming a common clinical assay. It is on the cutting-edge of a relatively new field of work, including both liquid biopsies—typically being developed for early tests for cancer-based on a blood sample—and whole-body tests for mental health diseases. Niculescu has also developed a test to evaluate pain levels. But there is increasing attention being paid to the possibility of blood tests that can identify DNA, RNA or protein fragments in the blood related to schizophrenia and depression.

“There are similar tests like this in other fields, like cancer, where a physician can biopsy the affected part of the body to determine the stage of disease,” stated Niculescu. “But when it comes to mental health, biopsying the brain isn’t an option. Our research is applying similar concepts from other areas of medicine, but we’re engineering new ways that will allow us to track mental symptoms objectively, including stress, using blood, or so-called ‘liquid biopsies.’”

The research was supported by an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award and a VA Merit Award. As they continue forward, Niculescu and his team are looking to acquire more funding via grants and private donations in addition to collaborations with other institutions and organizations.

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