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UCSD Study Explores Link Between Genetics And PTSD In Vets

A group of military police in full riot gear ahead of being deployed in San D...

Credit: Department of Defense

Above: A group of military police in full riot gear ahead of being deployed in San Diego, Nov. 25, 2018.

Researchers around the nation and at UC San Diego say some genes could make a person more likely to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A new study out Monday in the peer-reviewed journal Nature looked at blood samples from more than 165,000 veterans, including some from San Diego.

UCSD psychiatrist Murray Stein is one of the authors on the paper. The project is part of the Million Veteran Program out of Veteran Affairs.

“We were one of the first projects to have the opportunity to work with the million veterans program to work with this huge biorepository of data they’ve collected,” Stein said.

The Million Veteran Program began in 2011 as a White House initiative. It’s a national, voluntary program that asks veterans to conduct surveys and donate their blood.

The goal is to create a database of DNA from at least a million veterans, which researchers can use to understand and prevent diseases.

Reported by L. Matthew Bowler

“We’re looking for genes that are going to increase risk for developing PTSD the same way we look for genes that increase risk for breast cancer and other kinds of illnesses,” Stein said.

There have been other studies linking genetic history to PTSD. But, Stein says, with this study and some others in the MVP program, he's been able to access a large health dataset. He and other investigators on the study are comparing DNA from veterans with repeat PTSD symptoms to those without them. Those symptoms include things like flashbacks and nightmares.

“There’s a bunch of genes that might be involved, and part of the work we’re doing is trying to tease those apart," Stein said. "But one of those is this gene called CRHR-1, which is a stress hormone gene that people thought were associated with PTSD.”

The study also found some overlap between PTSD and other psychiatric conditions. For example, some genes associated with schizophrenia were also linked to PTSD.

When it comes to genetics research like this, psychiatrist Alana Iglewicz said this type of research is promising. At the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in La Jolla, she works with veterans experiencing PTSD and says understanding genetics could be part of a mix of therapies in the future.

“Mental illness has so many underlying contributors, genetics is a very important one but it’s not the only one. Someone’s childhood, their development, their life experiences, society, culture, politics. It all interplays in the arena of mental illness,” Iglewicz said.

“And so understanding one piece of that puzzle is promising. I’m optimistic, but I’m also grounded in knowing it probably won’t change the care I provide in the next year, possibly in the next five years,” Iglewicz said.

UCSD's Stein agreed. But, he said as the research grows, it could help reduce the number of PTSD cases through preventative measures.

“The risk that any one gene increases for PTSD is quite small. So practically it’s not like you can get a genetic test and find out if you’re going to develop PTSD or not. It’s not at that level,” Stein said.

“But as this research progresses, the hope is that we will be able to come to a point when we can say this person has an elevated risk… and that might affect how they are deployed in the military," Stein said. "It might impact what preparations those individuals get.”

Stein said the genetics test are becoming more accessible, as the costs continue to go down.

Listen to this story by Shalina Chatlani.

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Shalina Chatlani
Science and Technology Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover all things science and technology — from the biotech industry in San Diego to rooftop solar energy on new homes. I'm interested in covering the human side of science and technology, like barriers to entry for people of color or gender equity issues on biotech boards.

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