Brain imaging can help differentiate between PTSD and traumatic brain injuries

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By looking at the brain, scientists believe it is now possible to distinguish between two very different conditions that can have very similar symptoms. According to Theodore Henderson, a Denver, USA-based psychiatrist specialising in diagnosing complex cases, this study can help the medical community better identify the biological differences, and therefore treatment options, for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Henderson, part of a team of brain-imaging scientists from Amen Clinics, UCLA, Thomas Jefferson University and University of British Columbia, found they could achieve 94% accuracy rate differentiating between PTSD and TBI, which both can have significant impact on behaviour and quality of life. The study was published in the April 2015 special Veterans Issue of the journal Brain Imaging and Behavior.


“Now we can differentiate two common disorders which often overlap based on clinical examination in our Veteran population,” said Henderson, president of The Synaptic Space. “Improved diagnosis can lead to better treatment, particularly for TBI, since we have been developing specific treatments for TBI.”


More than 400,000 military personnel and veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD or TBI since 2001, and many have been diagnosed with both. Henderson said the available treatments of PTSD and TBI are vastly different. Moreover, the treatments for PTSD can be harmful, or at best, not helpful for those with TBI and vice versa.


“The need for a diagnostic tool to reliably distinguish PTSD from TBI in veteran populations is urgent,” he said. “Prior attempts to use imaging studies such as CT scans, MRIs, and conventional X-rays have been unsuccessful. This study uses single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) that looks directly at cerebral blood flow and indirectly at brain activity.”


Henderson also said the technique of analysing the data, and developing targeted treatments, is far superior to anything previously available in Denver or nationally.


“My colleagues, here in Denver and at Harvard Medical School, and I have been developing a specific treatment for TBI which depends upon our ability to target the area of injury in the brain. The use of SPECT allows us to see the location of the injury and direct this treatment to those specific foci of brain injury,” he said. “SPECT brain imaging, a nuclear medicine technique, can show areas of over-activity and under-activity in the brain and can illustrate changes in brain function with treatment.”

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