According to a new study published online in the journal Radiology, children who experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also have disruptions in the neural networks structure inside the brains. The findings could be of tremendous help in treating the disorder, according to the scientists.
PTSD is a mental disorder that usually occurs as a result of one or more traumatic experiences. Children are especially vulnerable to its effects, as the neurochemical and hormonal effects can cause long-lasting changes in their brains' functions that can affect them throughout their lifetime.
A team of Chinese scientists used MRI in comparing the brain structures of 24 pediatric PTSD patients and 23 children without the syndrome as a control group in the study. The traumatic event all the children went through was the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which provoked a massive disaster in China, killing roughly 70,000 and injuring more than 370,000 people.
The technique used for scanning is diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), an MRI that measures the integrity of white matter inside the brain. In the context of the study, this instrument was used in analyzing the brains' connectome — the maps of the neural connections in the brain. The connectome typically has a series of brain regions, also called nodes, which are connected by edges. The nodes with a large number of edges are named hubs.
"Generally speaking, the structural connectome and the functional connectome are based on different types of raw images, which may be used to investigate the brain's abnormalities through different views," explained the study lead author Qiyong Gong, M.D., in a press release.
The team used the DTI results and graph theory as an instrument to model the connectome, thus finding major structural differences between the brains of the control group and the PTSD subjects. The children with PTSD experienced a decrease in the global and local network efficiency, which was caused by the damage or disconnections between the regions.
Along with the content of the connectome, its structure was changed as well. Usually, the brain works as a mathematical model, making it possible to go through one point of the connectome to another within no more than a few steps. This type of neural connectivity helps the information transfer to be carried out more efficiently.
As it turns out, the PTSD patients experienced regularization at the connectome level, meaning their neural connections become more similar to a regular pattern than a small-world, allowing fast and efficient transfers. Because of the pattern being more localized, it takes more time for the information to be transferred from one node to another.
The classical therapy for PTSD falls under the umbrella of talk therapy and is used to help both children and adults deal with their past trauma. Cognitive therapy, for instance, helps the patients recognize the cognitive patterns, keeping them stuck in the negativity of their past emotions.
Used along with exposure therapy, which is a behavioral means of facing the fears, the approach is one of the most popular standard treatment, helping the patients reenter their traumas through virtual reality machines in order to fight their fears.
However, with a broader understanding of the neural mutations that occur due to the effects of the traumas on the patients' minds, scientists believe it will be easier to develop treatment in a manner that will be less invasive.