Helping Heroes: brain scans for PTSD

Most US troops have cleared out of Iraq. As soldiers head stateside, a lot have trouble leaving the battlefield behind.

PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder, is hitting troops hard. At any given time, more than 13 million Americans are affected by it. Now, for the first time ever, there could be a definitive way to find out who has it and help treat it.

When troops like Megan Krause come home many of their minds are still at war. Krause says, “I ended up thinking somehow that there were terrorists chasing me."

93-year-old John Cicha has vivid memories as a POW during World War II. Cicha mentions, "You never forget that stuff….never.” Cicha still lives with PTSD. “I still have nightmares,” he says.

Psychologist Brian Engdahl is heading a two-year study on Magnetoencephalography, or MEG to treat PTSD.

MEG measures magnetic fields in the brain. It shows patterns of miscommunication that identify PTSD. Another new study testing veterans with the imaging system asks them to do different tasks while in an MEG. The brain activity of PTSD vets is then compared to the results of vets without it. The main goal is to define PTSD bio-markers to diagnose it, treat it quickly, and track responses to treatment. While Engdahl is not involved in this particular study, he is excited about MEG’s possibilities.

Engdahl says, “This would be, we believe, one of the first biological markers of a mental disorder."

While veterans like John Cicha still deal with PTSD, due to this technology, the next generation of heroes might not have to.

The year long MEG study is a collaboration between the VA and researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. The project is also testing the technology on veterans with traumatic brain injuries.


BACKGROUND: Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event. Symptoms typically start within three months of a traumatic event. In a small number of cases, though, PTSD symptoms may not appear until years after the event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Many people who go through traumatic events have difficulty adjusting and coping for a while. But with time and taking care of yourself, such traumatic reactions usually get better. In some cases, though, the symptoms can get worse or last for months or even years. Sometimes they may completely shake up your life. In a case such as this, you may have post-traumatic stress disorder. Getting treatment as soon as possible after post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms develop may prevent long-term post-traumatic stress disorder. (

RISK FACTORS: People of all ages can have post-traumatic stress disorder. However, some factors may make you more likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic event, including: Being female; experiencing intense or long-lasting trauma; having experienced other trauma earlier in life; having other mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression; lacking a good support system of family and friends; having first-degree relatives with mental health problems, including PTSD; having first-degree relatives with depression; and having been abused or neglected as a child.

Women may be at increased risk of PTSD because they are more likely to experience the kinds of trauma that can trigger the condition. Post-traumatic stress disorder is especially common among those who have served in combat. It's sometimes called "shell shock," "battle fatigue" or "combat stress." The most common events leading to the development of PTSD include: Combat exposure; rape; childhood neglect and physical abuse; sexual molestation; physical attack or being threatened with a weapon. But many other traumatic events also can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, including fire, natural disaster, mugging, robbery, assault, civil conflict, car accident, plane crash, torture, kidnapping, life-threatening medical diagnosis, terrorist attack and other extreme or life-threatening events. (

M-E-G: The dome-shaped MEG scanner captures bursts of neuron activity that last only milliseconds. By comparison, a functional MRI scan takes three seconds to make a picture. When researchers overlay data from MEG scans on a map of the brain, they can show abnormalities-even subtle ones-as patches of color, indicating precisely which areas of the brain may be damaged. The researchers found that in veterans with PTSD, the working connections among groups of brain cells were much stronger on the right side of the brain, in an area known as the parietotemporal region. (

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