Why are Some Veterans More Susceptible to PTSD?

Why are Some Veterans More Susceptible to PTSD?

By Jim Windell

            Why do some military personnel experience the debilitating effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, while others seem to escape such effects?

            The answer, interestingly enough, may not be found in the brain so much as in social relationships.

            Although previous research has pointed to a number of genetic risk factors that help explain why some veterans are especially susceptible to PTSD, new research from a study led by Yale researchers Has found one particular social factor that might be more important than the genetic risk factors.

            That social factor?

             The ability to form loving and trusting relationships with others.

            The new study, just published in early October, 2020, in the journal Biological Psychiatry, is one of the first to explore the role of nurture as well as nature in its investigation of the biological basis of PTSD.

           According to Yale's Robert H. Pietrzak, associate professor of psychiatry and public health, and senior author of the study, "We exist in a context. We are more than our genes."

           In this new study, Pietrzak, Gelernter, who is the Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry and professor of genetics and of neuroscience at Yale, and their colleagues looked at psychological as well as genetic data collected from the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study. The National Heath and Resilience in Veterans Study surveyed a national sample of U.S. military veterans, and is supported by the National Center for PTSD. The researchers specifically focused on a measure of attachment style -- the ability or inability to form meaningful relations with others -- as a potential moderator of genetic risk for PTSD symptoms.

          The researchers found that those with an insecure attachment style report an aversion to or anxiety about intimacy with others, and have difficulty asking for help from others. On the other hand, those individuals with a secure attachment style perceive relationships as stable, feel that they are worthy of love and trust, and are able to solicit help from others. In effect, then, the ability to form secure attachments essentially neutralized the collective effects of genetic risk for PTSD symptoms.

            "Social environmental factors are critical to informing risk for PTSD and should be considered as potential moderators of genetic effects," Pietrzak said. Pietrzak is also director of the Translational Psychiatric Epidemiology Laboratory of the Clinical Neurosciences Division of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD. "The ability to form secure attachments is one of the strongest protective factors for PTSD," he added.

           Pietrzak also emphasized that these findings will help to predict who is at greater risk of experiencing severe symptoms of PTSD. Furthermore, he said that psychological treatments targeting interpersonal relationships may help mitigate PTSD symptoms in veterans with elevated genetic risk for this disorder.

             To read the original source of the story, click here.

            To read the journal article, go to:

Amanda J.F. Tamman, Frank R. Wendt, Gita A. Pathak, John H. Krystal, Janitza L. Montalvo-Ortiz, Steven M. Southwick, Lauren M. Sippel, Joel Gelernter, Renato Polimanti, Robert H. Pietrzak. (2020). Attachment style moderates polygenic risk for posttraumatic stress in United States military veterans: Results from the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study. Biological Psychiatry; DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2020.09.018

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