Study Looks at PTSD’s Effect on War Veterans’ Immune Systems

PTSD could be linked to a compromised immune system in war veterans, according to preliminary results of a study.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of South Carolina and the Dorn VA Medical Center,  could eventually lead to new methods for diagnosis and treatment for those who suffer from PTSD, according to the lead researcher Dr. Prakash Nagarkatti, associate dean and Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine.

Researchers were able to show that PTSD patients have increased levels of inflammation caused by a higher proportion of T-cells, which trigger inflammation.

 “We are looking at the immune function in PTSD patients. What we were able to demonstrate is that their immune systems seems to be hyperactivated, particularly certain types of cells,” Nagarkatti tells U.S. Medicine.

While the preliminary results have not yet been published, the findings were the basis for a new, $1.72 million grant from NIH that researchers are using to continue their work, Nagarkatti says. In the next phase of the study, researchers will be recruiting from 120 to 150 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans from the Dorn VAMC.

Investigators plan to test the hypothesis that traumatic events experienced by PTSD patients may trigger changes in cells in the immune system. The research entails studying the role of epigenetics, or changes that occur in cells outside the genes and the impact that these changes have on physiological changes. About 10 years ago, Nagarkatti says scientists discovered that changes can occur outside of the gene, linked to diet, trauma or toxins, that affects gene function.

Researchers wanted to find out if the trauma involved in  PTSD has an effect leading to epigenetic changes. Research so far has indicated that  there are some “unique epigenetic changes” occurring that are linked to the immune system, Nagarkatti says.

“That may tie up these pieces together thereby indicating that what is happening in certain individuals is that, when they are exposed to certain stresses or environmental trauma, there are some epigenetic changes happening, which alter the immune function, and the immune system gets hyperactivated. That may trigger some of the symptoms associated with PTSD,” he explains.

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