Are service members brains different because of trauma?

Research shows part of brain changes for those with PTSD, brain injuries

There are about 1.3 million active-duty troops and about 18.2 million veterans in the United States.

These service members often have to deal with various physical and emotional wounds. A new study shows their brains may also be different. 

Research shows 19% of veterans may have a traumatic brain injury. And 20% suffer from depression or PTSD.  

“It can mean having flashbacks, it can mean having nightmares, and as a result, they can have avoidance, so they avoid anything, any situation, any event that will remind them of that trauma,” explained psychiatrist Dr. Polina Shats.

A new study from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found that veterans and active-duty troops with combat-related PTSD and mild brain injuries had larger amygdalae than those of people with only mild brain injuries.

The amygdala is the area in the brain that processes emotions like fear, anxiety and aggression. Being able to see the size of the amygdala could lead to a screening tool to identify people at risk, and maybe even new treatments that target the brain. 

“There’s different medication options. There’s different therapy options. It really depends what the main symptom that they’re suffering with is," Shats said.

Experts say treatment approaches include yoga, exercise and mindfulness. In a University of Michigan study, veterans who practiced mindfulness developed stronger connections between specific brain networks which resulted in an easing of their symptoms. 

The researchers did not find statistical differences in other regions of the brain in service members with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries.