Scientists Read Brain's Magnetic Fields to Spot PTSD

ByABC News
January 21, 2010, 10:23 AM

Jan. 22 -- THURSDAY, Jan. 21 (HealthDay News) -- For the first time, researchers have been able to diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by reading patterns of magnetic fields created by brain cells.

The discovery, made by researchers at the University of Minnesota, provides a biological marker for the condition and could help in both diagnosing and treating PTSD, which is triggered by trauma and characterized by symptoms such as flashbacks and uncontrollable rage.

"We may be able to find some signals that could help us pick medications, or even pick up signals of impending problems before symptoms develop," said Keith A. Young, vice chairman for research at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine in Temple and core leader of the VA Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans. "The researchers have shown us the potential this has for helping us in the clinic, but it's a first step."

Data gleaned from this method could also help pinpoint exactly where relevant changes are taking place in the brain, added Young, who called the study an "eye opener."

The "synchronous neural interactions" test detects patterns in data generated by magnetoencephalography (MEG). This same research group had previously used the technique to detect several other conditions, from chronic pain to Alzheimer's. That research was published in 2007.

"Brain cells communicate with electrical signals," explained study author Dr. Apostolos P. Georgopoulos, whose team reported its work in the Jan. 20 issue of the Journal of Neural Engineering. "These electrical signals can be recorded with EEG, but they get distorted going through the skull and are delayed, so they're not very useful. The same electrical signals generate a magnetic field around them which passes out of the skull undistorted and extremely fast. They can be recorded with this instrument we have, so we have a very accurate, very faithful signal of brain activity."