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Memory gene may fuel PTSD
Photos of victims of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide hang in the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda.
May 14th, 2012
03:44 PM ET

Memory gene may fuel PTSD

A vivid memory can be an asset if you're studying for an exam or trying to recall the details of a conversation, but that aptitude may backfire when it comes to forming long-term responses to emotional trauma.

In a new study, Swiss researchers have found that a certain gene associated with a good memory - and in particular, the ability to remember emotionally charged images - is also linked to an increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among survivors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

"We are very confident that the gene is associated with the risk for PTSD, at least in the Rwandan population," says lead author Andreas Papassotiropoulos, M.D., a professor of molecular neuroscience at the University of Basel, in Switzerland.

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Although the findings suggest that memory and post-traumatic stress share a genetic basis, it's not clear exactly how the gene or the sharpness of a person's memory might increase the risk of PTSD, which is characterized by sudden, painful flashbacks of traumatic events.

"Some people have very, very detailed visual memories," says Keith A. Young, Ph.D., co-director of neuropsychiatry research at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, in Temple. "Perhaps there's something about that detailed kind of visual memory that makes it easier for you to have a flashback. That's one explanation."

The new study, which was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, had two phases.

First, Papassotiropoulos and his colleagues analyzed the DNA of more than 700 mentally healthy Swiss adults, and cross-referenced the results with each individual's performance on a memory test. The ability to recall photographs 10 minutes after seeing them was associated with a certain gene variation that is believed to play a role in so-called emotional memory.

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The researchers backed up this finding by repeating the memory test in a different group of about 400 Swiss adults. Using a type of brain scan known as functional magnetic resonance imaging, they found that the same gene variation was associated with certain patterns of brain activity known to be involved in storing memories.

The second phase of the study took place in Uganda, in a refugee camp that houses survivors of the Rwandan genocide. In 2006 and 2007, a group of about 350 camp residents agreed to provide DNA samples and undergo interviews to assess whether they had symptoms of PTSD.

All of the volunteers had lived through horrific trauma, such as rape and beatings, but only about 40% were found to have active PTSD. As the researchers suspected, the same gene variant identified in the Swiss participants was associated with an increased risk of PTSD, as well as with an increased risk of flashbacks with or without full-blown PTSD.

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The study leaves several important questions unanswered. The researchers don't yet know how the gene, which is involved in many different processes at the cellular level, is related to memory. And it's too soon to tell whether a better understanding of the genes that contribute to memory and PTSD will improve prevention or treatment of the disorder.

Young, who was not involved in the study, cautions that the data is still very preliminary.

"There's nothing here that says this is going to be a gene with a big effect size on PTSD," says Young, who studies the genetic and neurological underpinnings of PTSD at the Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans, a facility in Waco, Texas, sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In addition, it's not clear if the association seen in the study can be extrapolated to other populations, such as military veterans. Although some aspects of PTSD tend to be consistent from case to case, the type of psychological trauma a person experiences can influence how the disorder develops, Papassotiropoulos says.

The fact that the gene variant in the study was associated with memory in two genetically different populations, and in people with PTSD as well as mentally healthy adults, suggests that the findings may be broadly applicable. However, further studies will be needed to confirm that, Papassotiropoulos says.

Copyright Health Magazine 2011

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Filed under: Health.com • Mental Health • PTSD

soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. Mike

    Profits from drugs fuels PTSD, that's why so many doctors are prescribing them. I personally think that anytime a doctor makes up a disease we should slap him or her and send her off to a corner and make them take that garbage they prescribe...

    May 14, 2012 at 16:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • RA Clark

      Wow. Is there some contest to post the most ignorant comment? What do you win? Your own show on Fox News? A seat in Congress?

      May 14, 2012 at 16:51 | Report abuse |
    • Fearfighter

      Mike, in some cases for disease it is true there is a big pharma push to treat simple ailments with drugs but you would do your knowledge cabinet a great amount of good if you researched PTSD before making comments of this nature. What you are saying is not true.

      May 14, 2012 at 16:54 | Report abuse |
    • Kylarin

      Wow, are you actually stating you disbelieve PTSD exists?! I get where you're going with the whole big pharma driving more diagnoses for everything under the sun, and yes, even questionable new diseases... but, I've been there, and can tell you right now that PTSD is a reality. I fared better than others I've known, but please sign up for a tour if you feel the need to "verify" your belief that PTSD does not exist. Even if you yourself are not affected, you'll surely know someone that is, and come to better understand the nature of it, and it's basis in reality. I've bled for your right to say what you like on forums such as this, so please take due care in your consideration of my words when I tell you emphatically to take another hard look at your comment before posting about PTSD again. USAF '93-'95 (23 SFS, 24 STS) & USAFR '03-'07 (823 SFS, 934 SFS)

      May 14, 2012 at 17:04 | Report abuse |
    • Hemlock

      Well you've never been in a combat zone that's for sure. But with your warped logic we can tell you've spent plenty of time hiding under the couch. I hope they find a medication for you.

      May 14, 2012 at 18:00 | Report abuse |
    • BeverlyNC

      You' re an idiot who should not comment about something you know NOTHING about. I have PTSD and it has led me to the brink of suicide several times. I have a very vivid memory and a very detailed-oriented memory I have had my whole life. My Psychiatrist and I have already talked in depth about this very topic-. how my very excellent memory and very vivid memory contributes to my terrifying nightmares where I re-live my childhood abuse.
      You're lucky you had a perfect life. Many of us did not – from abuse, from a traumatic experience or from the horrors of war. PTSD is real. You are fake.

      May 14, 2012 at 18:10 | Report abuse |
  2. Squeezebox

    Well, it can tell you who shouldn't be a soldier....

    May 14, 2012 at 16:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Hot Carl

    I forgot what I was going to say.
    :-/

    May 14, 2012 at 17:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Mona

    Also for people who had violent abusive childhoods. It's tricky because PTSD isn't usually associated with that, but many adults struggle in the same way. Memory(gene) and intelligence probably makes the struggle even more difficult for those individuals.

    May 14, 2012 at 17:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. ghostclown

    Criminal wars fuel PTSD. PTSD is fueled by murderous presidents who put our young men and women in horrific situations to make a little money.

    May 14, 2012 at 17:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Hemlock

      A nation with too many sheeple causes war. If you come across weak you will get messed with. America is starting to get its swagger back. Stay hard in the yard! from a Vet.

      May 14, 2012 at 18:05 | Report abuse |
    • black

      i approve of your statement.

      May 14, 2012 at 22:44 | Report abuse |
  6. Billy

    I'd personally recommend that doctors spend more time looking at Propranolol in low dose and Ativan in very high dose (while awake), and walking the patient through recalling memories through all of the 5 senses, and have them recall all the times they have remembered recalling the events. It is like going into an old library and burning the index cards for the memories while on these drugs.

    But I also recommend they watch "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" before deciding to try my therapy, because it works, and you usually cannot get these memories back.

    May 14, 2012 at 18:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JLS639

      There is no evidence that this works. I challenge you to find any studies that show evidence that it does. Post a reference or PubMed ID number if you do.

      May 14, 2012 at 20:00 | Report abuse |
  7. D RN

    People with PTSD are the people who have SURVIVED extraordinary events. If I had to choose a PTSD survivor or someone without it, I'd definitely want the PTSD survivor on my side.

    May 14, 2012 at 18:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JayD

      Thank you... I've lost many years of my life and just observing something that some might deem insiginificant can be a nightmare. What is sad is missing some good years of my kids growing up.

      May 15, 2012 at 00:59 | Report abuse |
  8. Eugenie

    In the case of Rwanda, I wonder if the research took into consideration the impact of oral tradition culture and the role, if any, it may have played in conditioning individuals to use their memories at a higher proportion than non-oral tradition cultures.

    I look forward to reading the entire study.

    May 14, 2012 at 18:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. mac101

    It's a nice hypothesis for adults who experience an horrific traumatic event, but what about children? Many children who are physically/sexually abused are noted for their suppression of memory, rather than sharpened memory. How does the memory gene theory relate to the still-developing brain of young and very young children?

    Also, this article is somewhat misleading – flashbacks are not the most common symptom of PTSD or even the symptom that defines the condition, and many people with full-blown PTSD have no flashbacks at all. Flashbacks are categorized as part of a larger phenomenon called "re-experiencing" – intrusive memories (different than flashbacks) and nightmares are more commonly experienced than a true flashback.

    The two other categories of symptoms – avoidance, which includes avoiding triggers associated with the event, emotional numbing and even blocking memories of the event, etc. – and arousal, which includes hyper-vigilance, an exaggerated startle reflex, paranoia, etc. – are far more common among PTSD survivors of all types of trauma than true flashbacks.

    May 14, 2012 at 20:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Been there

    One of the things that has helped me was to bring up the emotional trauma in my mind and then look left and right several times and take a deep breath. Then see if the emotional memory was still there. It has to do with the flashbulb memories that are in the amigdala. I found that this worked. The facts of the trauma was there but the emotional trauma was gone. That is all there is to it. Hope it helps

    May 14, 2012 at 20:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. uhh, what's the gene?

    this article is supposed to give a summary of a PNAS paper identifying a new gene involved with memory and PTSD. Why did they not even mention the name of the gene then? Give your readers a bit more credit than that... don't presume we're all stagnating at a 5th grade level of scientific understanding and discussing the actual gene would be way beyond our capabilities.

    May 15, 2012 at 00:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. uhh, what's the gene?

    by the way, the gene is protein kinase c alpha... it's an intracellular protein involved in signal transduction cascades, in case anyone is interested.
    CNN... feel free to hire me as a scientific contributor.....

    May 15, 2012 at 00:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. qwedie

    I take a drug with a small amount of estasy in it, but it is not enough for long term help. I am going to the VA today and hope they have something better as my world is sliping away. As for memory I have always had a photo memory. I remember the children and entire family killed or burned todeath just a few feet away from me. People who have never experienced such things just cant know how it feels. It's no video game, not that I have ever played on myself.

    May 15, 2012 at 10:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. GA1966

    There is an easy natural way to help treat PTSD its called cannabis. Marijuana helps to regulate our endocannabinoid system which controls memory, anxiety, hunger and our immune system. Additionally high grade hash oils can cure cancers and a host of other diseases. Don't believe me? Watch "Run From The Cure" , "What If Cannabis Cured Cancer" or "Chronic Future". Check out all of the testimonials on YouTube or the company Cannabis Science which is curing skin cancers in Colorado with a topical cannabis oil. Big Pharma has zero interest in natural medicine because they cannot patient and sell it at huge profits. Synthetic pills are not the answer. Do the research and push for medical cannabis legalization in your state. Let's take back control of our health!

    May 15, 2012 at 10:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Fany

      I think the Government needs to have some kind of help for CHAMPVA Veteran's wife's to be added some type of DENTAL program. Without teet you get sick, can't eat cause's heart pebmlros. There is no Dental at all for wife's of fallen victims that have spouse's who are 100% disabled. It is time to change things. Also widow's of WWII. I think widow's left from WWI or WWII should get some percentage for there spouses service a a set aside pension to help them alone. My Dad died before he was qualified and my Mom was left with no pension. Then when I tried to get her her burial rights etc she was sick and died before she got it after I worked on it for a long time over 3 yrs. This slow time period was ridiculous and I feel I should have got what they both lost. Now my husband is 100% disabled from VIETNAM.. He was told to hide his uniform on the plane to take off cause protesters would be fussing at the arrival and when he went back to his College in LaGrange he was spit on and called you one of those Vietnam Soldiers aren't you . Never a Parade only a hug from ONE MAN GOV LESTER MADDOX of Atlanta Ga. The debate??? MILLIONS died. and today we still have to prove our Veterans to receive there Pension and the last two years not even a RAISE and the GAS keeps going up to 5.00 and there goes what they fought for. What would we do without GOD.. HE IS THE ONLY ONE WHO IS ALWAYS THERE NO MATTER WHAT and they take away Prayers from School but the first time a child dies they have Candle light Services and STAND FIRM IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD AND CRY OUT TO GOD. GOD BLESS AMERICA DAD TO YOU IN HEAVEN AND MY MOM PVT OLIN W FREEMAN WWII 82ND AIRBOURNE AND MY HUSBAND WILLIAM LEWIS COX SP4 ARMY VIETNAM WELL DONE JOB AND REWARD WILL BE ETERNAL LIFE IN HEAVEN . LOVE A PROUD DAUGHTER AND WIFE I AM DEBORAH M COX 540 Robin Rd Covington GA 30016

      September 11, 2012 at 17:36 | Report abuse |
  15. Brigit

    BeverlyNC,

    I also have a PTSD and an exceptional memory. Never made the connection before, but it makes sense. I always thought my ability for memorization was a gift. Now I'm not so sure. I do not have "flashbacks" but rather instrusive thoughts, although I did have nightmares as a child and young adult. I recently started to play brain games as a mental distraction and will add Tetris to the mix.

    To those who discount the reality of PTSD - count yourself lucky you never suffered the kind of violence and abuse that can bring on this terrible disorder. Most of us with PTSD see ourselves as survivors and not victims, but that doesn't mean we don't need help or better treatment options. Unfortunately, the pain of PTSD is all too real.

    May 15, 2012 at 10:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Jorge

    PTSD is nothing, if we had inherited the most recessive genes from our primeval ancestors, most of the folks who have had PTSD-inducing experiences would be marauding around in hunting parties where they had them looking for bloody payback.

    May 15, 2012 at 14:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Stacy cowgill

    I have ptsd i know why i have it and once a person is so turmatized they push the people they love away and i would know because i have the disorder

    May 15, 2012 at 16:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Bob Bingham

    I am one of those people, with an exceptional memory and PTSD. A good memory has a double edge, mine helped me greatly as a Police Officer, but those memories have also come back to haunt me years later. For those who have PTSD, you will never get people to understand that haven't experienced it, it haunts your life. I try to explain it to people this way when I have to; when you are in life threatening situations or see horrible things, because of your occupation, you aren't allowed to show emotion or let these things affect your judgement. You push all these things into a part of your Brain and try not to think about them. But one day something will happen, that place will overfill or something else will trigger it, and those bad memories come back with a vengeance, and it will destroy you if it can. It doesn't go away but you will learn to recognize it. For most of us, we keep to a life of isolation, we don't want to burden or hurt loved ones or others and they don't and won't understand.

    May 25, 2012 at 19:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Sindy

    I suffer from PTSD and I have never taken drugs nor do I need them. Drugs only mask what I need to deal with on my own. In a six year period got a divorce, a man I was dating for three yrs died on his brithday and lost my home in a fire.
    I hate it because I hide it from everyone. I want so badly to love again but the fear keeps me from getting close to anyone. PTSD people are not crazy it's our way of protecting ourselves from the pain.

    June 12, 2012 at 15:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Hayattan

      I am a volunteer rrietee and benefits counsellor (volunteer) at Naaval Station GL. I work with PTSD among the returnee's from the Middle east. I have a PTSD issue my self and am successfully coping with it by avoiding certain issues. I help these young people as well as older vets by relating issues. I find hhaving a DOG present wilst working with female military to be a valuable resource..They will oftn hold the dog, talk to the dog and that way they are conveing the issues to me. I reccomend man to speak with a proffessional counsellor here at FFSO. My Masters is in Education (continuing adult Ed and rehasb) but often this can cross over. I would like to mention though a obsrvation. IF we can get them paid and seen immediately we can reduce the effectsa of the PTSD. Why? By tsaking them from a situation they could not control to a situation where they can assist their families whilst undergoing therapy or counselling.

      September 13, 2012 at 22:26 | Report abuse |

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