A new study of the brain tissue of military personnel has led researchers to determine that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder may have a specific physical cause. Daniel Perl, M.D., a neuropathologist, has dedicated the past half-decade to studying the effects of traumatic brain injury on military personnel. In 2012, Dr. Perl noted an odd pattern while examining a slide of brain tissue from an American soldier who had been within five feet of a suicide bomber’s blast. The soldier, who had survived the bomb’s impact, died of an apparent drug overdose after returning from combat. Dr. Perl noted that a pattern of brown, dust-like scarring was apparent on the brain tissue. This pattern was dissimilar to the pattern of protein build-up found in the brain of someone with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative disease found in athletes who have suffered severe or repeated blows to the head.
In the months following the discovery, Dr. Perl and his colleagues examined the brains of other military personnel who had experienced blast exposure. The researchers noted that all of these brains had the same type of scarring in the same areas of the brain – at the border between the gray matter and the white matter interconnecting it – responsible for regulating sleep, cognition, and the like. Dr. Perl went on to discover that embryonic versions of the same injury, in the same areas of the brain, were present in the brains of service members who died just days after their blast exposure. The findings of this study were recently published in June 2016 in The Lancet Neurology.
This discovery will be immensely important in researchers’ understanding of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Previously, scientists presumed that explosive blasts affected the brain in a manner similar to a concussion. Additionally, many of the symptoms experienced by those suffering from PTSD – cognitive problems, inability to sleep, depression, and memory loss – were assumed to be emotional in nature.
Dr. Perl’s discovery will necessarily change the way PTSD is viewed in the medical community. The injuries of those suffering, once thought to be solely emotional or psychological in nature, will be tied to a physical cause if Dr. Perl’s research is replicated.