May 22, 2003 

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War Stress (video)
May 06, 2003

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Interviewee: Dr. Matthew Freidman, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Expert.

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Produced by Orrin Schonfeld

Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc., with additional footage courtesy US Army, NOAA, NBC News, and TV 18 Hall County, GA Government Channel.

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As America’s fighting men and women return home from the horrors of war in Iraq, some of them may develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

But as this ScienCentral News video reports, a study has shown that some soldiers are particularly resistant to PTSD.

Coping Mechanism

The Army’s Special Forces troops are less likely to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened.

According to research by the National Center for PTSD at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, these elite soldiers produce more neuropeptide Y—a brain chemical that helps you stay focused on a task even under stress—than Rangers and Marines who were going through the same training. “The Special Forces people do differ in their capacity to cope,” says Dr. Matthew Friedman, director of the National Center for PTSD.

“The Special Forces subjects were much better able to mobilize their neuropeptide Y,” says Friedman. “They were able to sustain these levels for a longer period of time and there was an inverse correlation between the high neuropeptide Y levels and inducement of psychological distress. In other words, the more neuropeptide Y you generated, the less likely you were to be distressed by this mock activity, particularly using a scale that measures dissociation, which is one of the army’s own scales.”

Dissociation is the feeling of being disconnected from self, time, and/or external circumstances. People who suffer from PTSD experience detachment from other people, unresponsiveness to their surroundings, and avoid activities and situations that remind them of the trauma they suffered. They often have flashbacks or dreams that force them to relive their trauma, and sometimes exhibit fear, panic, or aggression when something triggers a memory of their trauma.

Friedman says it's not known yet whether Special Forces soldiers are born with the “right stuff” or if it's developed through their special training. If it turns out to be the result of their training, can others be trained? “If we can,” he says, “obviously we want to train military folks, other people that are going to be in vocations that are going to expose them to traumatic events, whether it’s EMTs or firefighters, first responders, mental health people who do the kind of work I do. Train them.”

Preventative Measure

image: US Army
The next step in the research is to explore prevention. Soldiers aren’t the only people who suffer from PTSD. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, any terrifying event, including natural disasters, car accidents, or violent crime, can cause it. The NIMH estimates that about 5.2 million Americans have the disorder.

A low level of neuropeptide Y in a person may be a marker that helps doctors identify which people may be more vulnerable to developing PTSD, and perhaps these people could be given a drug to enhance their neuropeptide Y level. “I think of it as a morning after pill,” says Freidman. “If you are exposed to trauma, if you’ve been raped or mugged or exposed to a terribly violent World Trade Center catastrophe plane crash, is there something you can take in the immediate aftermath that will protect you against later developments? I think that the research is very, very exciting. I think it is emblematic of where the field has to go, which is to understand vulnerability and resilience, and then to understand if we can help people to achieve resilience through our own version of vaccination, immunization or just training them to deal with trauma.”

This research is funded by the National Center for PTSD and U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, Fort Detrick, MD.

by Karen Lurie

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