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The role of biomarkers and MEG-based imaging markers in the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and blast-induced mild traumatic brain injury


Background: Pervasive use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), rocket-propelled grenades, and land mines in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has brought traumatic brain injury (TBI) and its impact on health outcomes into public awareness. Blast injuries have been deemed signature wounds of these wars. War-related TBI is not new, having become prevalent during WWI and remaining medically relevant in WWII and beyond. Medicine's past attempts to accurately diagnose and disentangle the pathophysiology of war-related TBI parallels current lines of inquiry and highlights limitations in methodology and attribution of symptom etiology, be it organic, psychological, or behavioral. New approaches and biomarkers are needed. Preclinical: Serological biomarkers and biomarkers of injury obtained with imaging techniques represent cornerstones in the translation between experimental data and clinical observations. Experimental models for blast related TBI and PTSD can generate critical data on injury threshold, for example for white matter injury from acceleration. Carefully verified and validated models can be evaluated with gene expression arrays and proteomics to identify new candidates for serological biomarkers. Such models can also be analyzed with diffusion MRI and microscopy in order to identify criteria for detection of diffuse white matter injuries, such as DAI (diffuse axonal injury). The experimental models can also be analyzed with focus on injury outcome in brain stem regions, such as locus coeruleus or nucleus raphe magnus that can be involved in response to anxiety changes. Clinical: Mild (and some moderate) TBI can be difficult to diagnose because the injuries are often not detectable on conventional MRI or CT. There is accumulating evidence that injured brain tissues in TBI patients generate abnormal low-frequency magnetic activity (ALFMA, peaked at 1-4 Hz) that can be measured and localized by magnetoencephalography (MEG). MEG imaging detects TBI abnormalities at the rates of 87% for the mild TBI, group (blast-induced plus non-blast causes) and 100% for the moderate group. Among the mild TBI patients, the rates of abnormalities are 96% and 77% for the blast and non-blast TBI groups, respectively. There is emerging evidence based on fMRI and MEG studies showing hyper-activity in the amygdala and hypo-activity in pre-frontal cortex in individuals with PTSD. MEG signal may serve as a sensitive imaging marker for mTBI, distinguishable from abnormalities generated in association with PTSD. More work is needed to fully describe physiological mechanisms of post-concussive symptoms.

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