Although much of The Telegraph’s science coverage seems to have gone down the pan recently, they’ve just published a remarkably well balanced and informative article on war trauma and how it is associated with measurable changes in brain structure.
Brain imaging studies have found that people with post-traumatic stress disorder tend to have smaller hippocampi, an area known to be key for emotional memory.
But it’s not clear whether this is a direct consequence of PTSD, or simply that people with smaller hippocampi are more likely to develop the disorder after trauma.
The article does a fantastic job of presenting a balanced look at the causality hypnotheses, and quotes psychiatrist Simon Wessely, known for his research on the psychology, neuroscience and history of combat trauma.
But Prof Wessely has found that the very thing that exposes soldiers to PTSD might also help them deal with it: their job. According to his research at King’s, group cohesion and firm leadership are critical in reducing the impact of psychological distress.
“You have to remember we are talking about professional soldiers who have been highly trained,” he says. “Their training is designed to harden them against the unpleasant nature of war. The military is actually very effective at reducing the risk of PTSD with their training, their professionalism, esprit de corps and morale. War is a stressful business and this all prepares soldiers for that.”
The flip side is that the memories that provoke trauma are not necessarily those of gruesome battles or injuries. “The kind of events that affect them are not simply seeing bad things and coming under fire ‚Äì it is when the rules they have come to expect are somehow broken. It is when errors of omission or commission lead to the feeling they have been let down, or that they have let their comrades down, that mental health problems occur. This is why ‘friendly fire’ incidents are so psychologically damaging ‚Äì it violates the soldiers’ rules of who is supposed to be shooting at them. They will feel anger at those responsible.”
The only bizarre bit is the second to last paragraph where it mentions “new treatment is being developed, drawing on neurolinguistic programming, relaxation techniques and even Eye Movement Desensitisation Therapy”.
It mentions EMDR as if it is something unusual, when it is an increasing well researched evidence-based treatment, and NLP as if it is nothing out-of-the-ordinary, when it is largely pseudoscience that lacks even the most basic empirical support.
Link to ‘How brain scans show the trauma of war’.