UCLA Fielding School of Public Health epidemiology adjunct assistant professor, Dr. Julia Bailey, co-authored a new study on how the risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder may be influenced by certain genetic markers.
Why do some people develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while others who suffered the same ordeal do not? A new UCLA discovery may shed light on the answer. UCLA scientists have linked two genes to the debilitating mental disorder, suggesting that heredity influences a person’s risk of developing PTSD. Published in the February edition of the Journal of Affective Disorders, the findings could provide a biological basis for diagnosing and treating PTSD more effectively in the future.
“Many people suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder after surviving a life-threatening ordeal like war, rape or a natural disaster,” explained lead author Dr. Armen Goenjian, a research professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. “But not everyone who experiences trauma suffers from PTSD. We investigated whether PTSD has genetic underpinnings that make some people more vulnerable to the syndrome than others.”
In 1988, Dr. Goenjian, an Armenian American, rushed to Spitak, Armenia, after a 6.8 magnitude earthquake devastated the country. The temblor leveled entire towns and cities, killing more than 25,000 Armenians, two-thirds of them children. With support from the Armenian Relief Society, Goenjian and his colleagues helped establish a pair of psychiatric clinics that treated earthquake survivors for 21 years. A dozen multigenerational families in northern Armenia agreed to allow their blood samples to be sent to UCLA, where Dr. Goenjian and his colleagues combed the DNA of 200 individuals for genetic clues to psychiatric vulnerability.
In 2012, his team discovered that PTSD was more common in survivors who carried two gene variants associated with depression. In the current study, Dr. Goenjian and first author Dr. Julia Bailey, an adjunct assistant professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, focused on two genes called COMT and TPH-2 that play important roles in brain function.
COMT is an enzyme that degrades dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, and helps regulate mood, thinking, attention and behavior. Too much or too little dopamine can influence various neurological and psychological disorders.