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11 September 2017

A world-first study investigating the genetics of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Vietnam veterans, conducted by QUT in collaboration with the Gallipoli Medical Research Foundation and funded by RSL Queensland, could help explain why some people develop PTSD after exposure to trauma while others do not.

The findings by researchers from the School of Psychology and Counselling and the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation identified biomarkers which contribute to a predisposition to PTSD and can be passed down to future generations.

The study involved a cohort of 96 Australian Vietnam veterans and 115 civilians exposed to urban violence from Atlanta, USA.

Recently published in the international psychiatry journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, this is the first study of PTSD to use the latest DNA technology to look for epigenetic changes. Epigenetics explains how environmental factors such as stress can change the way genes work without altering the DNA sequence.

“Using cutting-edge technology, we investigated epigenetic changes across the entire genome in Australian Vietnam veterans,” said lead author of the study, Vice-Chancellor`s Research Fellow Dr Divya Mehta.

“We identified novel genes that had different epigenetic patterns in veterans with PTSD compared to veterans without PTSD. Importantly, we replicated these effects in a US civilian population exposed to urban violence.

“Our results highlight that there are genes involved in the vulnerability to PTSD that are in common with neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. The common mechanism in both disorders based on the genes identified might relate to tissue inflammation.”

The study is part of a wider research initiative which has revealed a number of physical co-morbidities associated with PTSD. The findings of this initiative are now being used to equip doctors and other healthcare professionals with new strategies to better identify the signs and symptoms of PTSD.

“This research is vital to shedding a light on this debilitating condition. Never before had researchers looked this deeply into PTSD and its relationship with the physical health of veterans,” said Miriam Dwyer, CEO of the Gallipoli Medical Research Foundation (GMRF).

The research team included researchers Dr Divya Mehta, Dr Joanne Voisey, Professor Phillip Morris and is led by Executive Dean of Health Professor Ross Young, together with national and international collaborators. This project, funded at over $200,000 is part of an overall $7 million research program funded by RSL Queensland.

“The more research that’s conducted on PTSD, the better the chance of recovery for our veterans and also the wider community where the disease can ruin lives just as insidiously,” said Stewart Cameron CSC, State President of RSL Queensland.

“This is a critical step towards addressing the physical and mental health challenges faced by those who’ve served our country.” 

Approximately one in four Australian veterans from the Vietnam War developed PTSD. Many of these veterans were not diagnosed until decades after their service had ended.

“For years I asked myself ‘why me?’ Some of my mates who went over there had no problems; no nightmares, no lack of sleep, no flashbacks. I couldn’t understand why it was having such a terrible impact on me. I’ve had issues all my life because of PTSD,” said Vietnam veteran and study participant Dave Morgan.

“I got involved in this study to find answers, not just for me, but for everyone who suffers from PTSD. I am so grateful for this research, and that it will help increase understanding of what I went through.”

QUT Vice-Chancellor's Research Fellow Dr Divya Mehta

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