A significant percentage of the Israeli population suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psycho-Trauma, “post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder caused by exposure to a traumatic event.” These distressing events that could cause PTSD may include witnessing a terrorist attack, experiencing high levels of stress due to living in a rocket attack zone, losing a loved one to terror, being a rape survivor or a victim of domestic violence, or even losing relatives prematurely due to a traffic accident or a disease. Until recently, there was no way to track post-traumatic stress disorder inside the brain in the earlier phases of PTSD.

However, Professors Talma Hendler and Nathan Intrator of Tel Aviv University are working to change that. They have developed groundbreaking tools that pair a commonplace electroencephalography and a more complex functional magnetic resonance imaging to track PTSD deep inside the brain. Their approach is to locate the traces of PTSD in the brain and monitor those areas over time to determine “stress vulnerability” inside the body of each patient, much earlier on than an MRI could.

The two professors worked with a test group of IDF medics, who were examined before they started their military service and after their subsequent exposure to stressful events while deployed in combat units. The results of this study could significantly aid treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder, by determining scientifically when soldiers have their breaking point earlier on. Presently, only expensive and less readily available MRI’s can study how post-traumatic stress disorder impacts the brain, and people usually only utilize MRI’s once the post-traumatic stress disorder has reached a very difficult level.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, if not treated properly, can adversely affect someone for the rest of their lives. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder include flashbacks to the traumatic event, nightmares, difficulty concentrating, as well as feelings of constant anxiety and depression. In some instances, someone experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder can feel as if they are reliving their traumatic experience daily through the nightmares and the flashbacks, even years after the trauma is over. Some people with post-traumatic stress disorder can become suicidal.

Thus, any thing that can detect PTSD earlier on can significantly aid the illness’ treatment, thus preventing the development of detrimental pathological effects. As Professor Hendler stated, “We saw events like these which are changing the brain, and this is happening in the brain areas of memory and learning like in the hippocampus. These regions are changing over time, which suggests that this might be a good target for treatment if you catch it at the right time.”

By Rachel Avraham