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When A Bomb Goes Off During Your Study On Trauma: New UW Findings On PTSD

Charles Krupa
AP Photo
Medical workers aid injured people after two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in Boston, April 15, 2013.

When a traumatic event happens, some people find ways to cope while others get caught in the grip of post-traumatic stress disorder. A new study led by a Seattle researcher and enabled by an unexpected disaster suggests a way we might be able to predict who’s most likely to struggle.

Katie McLaughlin is now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington, but early last year, she was on faculty at Harvard Medical School. She was working on a study with about 60 Boston-area teenagers, exploring how stress affects developing brains.

“The study that we were conducting was examining how exposure to trauma — particularly exposure to child maltreatment — shape regions in the brain that are involved with emotional learning,” McLaughlin said.  

McLaugjlin and her collaborators used a functional MRI scanner to see how the amygdala, that key brain center, reacts to stress or threats. In some subjects, seeing a picture of a negative image like an angry face made the amygdala light right up. For others, the reaction was more muted.

A Real-World Trauma

Then on the morning of April 15, two blasts went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The bombing and the lockdown and manhunt that followed traumatized the whole city. McLaughlin herself was shaken by it, but then she and her colleagues saw an opportunity.

“It occurred to me that we had all of this rich data on brain development. It’s extremely rare to have in a study where it’s measured prior to the occurrence of one of these events,” she said.

That gave her a powerful tool: before-and-after snapshots around a totally unpredictable tragedy. They surveyed their study subjects to find who was having PTSD symptoms, then searched the original data for early-warning signs.

They discovered teens who showed a stronger amygdala responseon the initial study — whose brains were on hair-trigger alert for signs of stress — were more likely to have mental health problems after the bombing. That suggests it could be a kind of marker for people at an elevated risk for PTSD.

McLaughlin says the findings bring us closer to early interventions and maybe even preventive steps for people at risk of health problems following a trauma. 

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.