Middle East war refugees have biomarkers for PTSD

A line of Syrian women and a young girl queue to register at an impromptu registration center set up by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and partners just outside Arsal, Lebannon. (Credit: UNHCR Photo Unit/Flickr)

Researchers have identified two biomarkers in recent Middle Eastern war refugees that appear to be related to post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems.

The researchers found elevated levels of two brain chemicals—neurotrophic growth factor and nerve growth factor—in the blood of refugees recently arrived in Michigan from Iraq and Syria who exhibited symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety.

Those chemicals, known collectively as neurotrophins, involve the brain’s ability to form new connections between neurons in response to brain injuries, a process called neuroplasticity.

“In effect, the neurotrophins created a dysfunctional rewiring of the brain that makes the refugees relive these experiences,” says Bengt Arnetz, the study’s principal investigator and chair of the College of Human Medicine family medicine department at Michigan State University. “That was a new finding.”

The researchers also examined whether war refugees who reported exposure to environmental contaminants, such as lead and other heavy metals, had higher levels of the two neurotrophins in their blood.

Arnetz says the men and women from Syria were more likely to report exposure to environmental contaminants. Many of them had high levels of manganese in their bodies.

“There is a definite association between higher environmental exposure and PTSD,” Arnetz says.

Those refugees with large amounts of lead in the blood also had elevated levels of the two neurotrophins and scored higher on a PTSD index, according to the study, which appears in PLOS ONE.

Further research is necessary to understand how the psychological trauma of war and environmental exposure contribute to adverse mental health.

Additional researchers are from Wayne State University and Michigan State.

Source: Michigan State University