A Genetic Link May Put Some Families at More Risk For PTSD And Depression

Scientists are researching why some people who have experienced trauma develop PTSD and others do not. Out of a group of people who witness the exact same scene of murder or natural disaster, only part of that group may later experience the symptoms of PTSD while others recover from the trauma more quickly. Scientists want to know why. A recent study in the Journal of Affective Disorders shares some possible answers.

UCLA researchers, led by Armen Goenjian, research professor of department of psychiatry, have found genetic changes that suggest that the risk of developing PTSD may be passed on through generations. This discovery could help predict whether certain people may suffer from PTSD, may increase early detection and treatment, and may even help prevent people from developing PTSD.

Goenjian’s recent findings are not his first studies on the connection between genetics and PTSD. Some suffer from PTSD because of genetics and others by the events through their life. A previous study revealed that individuals inherited nearly 40% of the vulnerability to the disorder. This new study suggests that PTSD and depression can be inherited throughout multiple generations.

The study focused on 200 adults who experienced a severe earthquake in Armenia in 1988. These individuals, from 12 multigenerational families, witnessed street scenes of death and severe injury. Fourteen years after the quake, researchers gave the participants genetic tests to record any changes that may have been affected by the traumatic experience.

The tests revealed mutations within any of three genes that regulate serotonin secretions. Serotonin is a hormone that increases feelings of happiness, and those with serotonin deficiencies often suffer from depression and anxiety. Anti-depressant medications are actually serotonin-boosting medicine. Rather than fighting against the depression, medications works to increase the level of the "happiness hormone," serotonin.

Goenjian’s findings provide hope for treatment and possibly even prevention from getting PTSD. The link between PTSD and genes that provide serotonin opens the doors for multiple channels for research. With knowledge of specific genes to examine, scientists can screen patients for risk of PTSD. New treatments could also be developed, keeping in mind the changes in serotonin levels.

At best, this research could help reduce the incidence in PTSD. Goenjian hopes that once a person is screened for their risk to the disorder, consideration will be taken before they are placed in a situation certain to cause them trauma. Perhaps those who are at risk might be less likely to be stationed in a combat zone, and rather stationed in one of several other places where they can provide support.

Goenjian believes that future studies with other genes and with larger populations and multiple ethnic and racial groups will provide more answers to the biology of PTSD.