In World War War I, when solders returned home from battle in a depressed or emotionally distressed state, they were branded with the term 'shell-shocked', which often times connoted a lack of character and sometimes even resulted in punishment. World War II brought with it new terminology for the psychological phenomenon: 'combat fatigue'. Later, during the Vietnam War, the condition became known as 'operational stress injury'. No matter the name—shell shock, combat fatigue, operational stress injury—each diagnosis carried with it a negative and embarrassing stigma.
Today, the diagnosis is termed 'post-traumatic stress disorder' (PTSD). It is no secret that PTSD diagnoses are widespread among soldiers returning to the U.S. from combat. One Department of Veterans Affairs study cites psychiatrists estimating that 1 in 3 U.S. soldiers suffer from PTSD after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan (or both). Studies also reveal that the number rises when other diagnoses like depression and bipolar disorder are included. These mental conditions are often accompanied by dangers like higher risks of alcohol abuse, drug addiction, thoughts of suicide, and inability to readjust in the civilian workplace, to name a few.
Another challenge plaguing sufferers of PTSD relates to the fact that it is, in essence, a mental injury rather than a physical one. That is to say, veterans who return with a lost limb or a broken bone will likely be able to present an x-ray or type of scan to document their battle wounds, whereas such documentation has been difficult to ascertain with PTSD patients aside from psychiatrist's notes. Researchers at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, however, have recently unveiled new equipment that uses neuroimaging software to create a picture of PTSD.
PTSD is said to be the most common mental injury incurred in combat operations, yet it is also the most difficult to diagnose and the most complex to treat. Thus, the doctors behind the software aim to remove the guesswork from PTSD diagnoses, as they hinge on the self-reporting of emotional and psychological conditions that may be painful, traumatic, or embarrassing to report.
Test subjects were shown a series of words and images calculated to evoke memories of combat while a magnetoencephalography (MEG) machine measured their responses to the stimuli.
"The brain scans of the [test subjects] showed huge differences in how the men with and without PTSD processed the images,"
said Dr. Margot Taylor, director of the neuroimaging project.
"We could see heightened arousal that was maintained in the PTSD-afflicted men, and not in the men who don't suffer from the illness. The reality is those with PTSD can't let it go. Their brains stay in a hyper-aroused state," Taylor elaborated.
Taylor further described the discovery as
"a breakthrough", distinguishing this new method from the clinical manner in which doctors currently issue PTSD diagnoses based on emotional and psychological symptoms. "This research could lead to faster diagnosis based on an objective measure rather than having a soldier self-identify", Taylor explained.
Major Eghtedar Manouchehri, a Canadian service member and research participant, shared his take on the stigma that all too often accompanies a PTSD diagnosis.
"Very few people who are suffering from it will open up about it. It's not that the support network is not there, but the military is based on a culture of strength – so no one wants to appear 'weak,'" Manouchehri said. "These are the guys and girls that I have literally trusted with my life every day, and vice versa. Overseas, you watch each other's' backs. Studies like this are important, because that kind of responsibility shouldn't end when we [return home]."
The study's results have not gone unopposed. Renowned PTSD expert and clinical psychologist, Dr. Alain Brunet, advises enthusiasts of the new device to filter the hype with 'a grain of salt'. Expressing uncertainty, Brunet cautioned,
"I do not know of a psychiatric illness that can be diagnosed with neuroimaging. None. Ever. So allow me to be skeptical."
It is unknown whether U.S. hospitals will follow suit. Either way, it is estimated that the Canadian Forces will take up to 15 years to equip their bases with the MEG machines.