War-related stress causes changes in brain microstructure

Military warfare personnel are at increased risk of physical and mental health problems. Mental health-related disorders are widespread; up to 30% of service members returning from Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), or Operation New Dawn (OND) receive a diagnosis of mental illness, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety or depression.

A study led by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a founding member of the Mass General Brigham Health System, investigated microstructural changes in the limbic and paralimbic grey matter regions of the brain that control emotions and basic drives.

The team analyzed the diffusion-weighted MRI scans of 168 male veterans who had participated in the Translational Research Center for TBI and Stress Disorders (TRACTS) study conducted between 2010 and 2014.

They found that war zone-related stress was associated with alterations in limbic grey matter microstructure, independent of a mental disorder or mild traumatic injury diagnosis. These structural alterations were, in turn, related to cognitive functioning, including response inhibition, improved verbal short-term memory and processing speed.

The results suggest that the alterations may underlie the harmful outcomes of exposure to war zone-related stress. Thus, exposed military service members may benefit from early therapeutic intervention even without a diagnosed mental disorder.

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