COM associate professor receives $3 million toward PTSD research

March 2, 2007

(TEMPLE, TX) — A Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine faculty member has received $3 million to fund post-traumatic stress disorder research at Veterans Affairs facilities in Temple and Waco.

The funding for Keith Young, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the HSC-COM and co-director of the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System Neuropsychiatry Research Program, was introduced to federal legislators in December 2005 but not released until this week.

Dr. Young, Dr. Paul Hicks, head of the Waco VA’s mental health division, and Kathryn Kotrla, M.D., chair of psychiatry and behavioral science in the HSC-COM, met with U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, in spring 2005 to discuss potential funding for PTSD research. The legislature approved $3 million for Dr. Young’s program in late 2005, and he and his colleagues have been working with Congress, the Army and Department of Defense for the past year on satisfying all the requirements needs for releasing the funds.

Dr. Young has been interested in PTSD for several years, but the road that led him to his current research began 15 years before.

“I have been the research coordinator at the Waco VA for the past 15 years and started working with Dr. Paul Hicks on schizophrenia,” Dr. Young said. “Our research focused on the brain anatomy in people with mental illnesses, and one of the ‘extra’ control groups was composed of people suffering from major depression. We hypothesized that their brains would be anatomically normal, but soon found that this was not the case.”

In 2004, Drs. Young and Hicks, along with collaborators at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, published a paper that described substantial changes in the anatomy of the brain in people suffering from major depression.

“It was the first time that findings like this were shown,” Dr. Young said. “In the brains of people that experienced major depression, the thalamus was larger. At the time, most scientists were focusing on neurochemical reasons for depression, not anatomical factors, and almost all of those studying anatomy were looking for brain defects, not enlargements.”

Based on their findings, Drs. Young and Hicks followed up with a study that sought to discover if a genetic alteration was responsible for the change. What they found was remarkable.

The inheritance of a common serotonin transporter (SERT) gene variant was found to be involved in enlargement of the pulvinar nucleus of the thalamus, which is involved in interpreting threatening visual stimuli, facial expressions and fearful emotions. The enlarged pulvinar may enhance the brain’s “automatic threat detection system,” making some people more vulnerable when exposed to stress and trauma.

The finding, to be published later this month, could explain why some people are more resilient and others more vulnerable to both depression and PTSD.

Now that Dr. Young has the green light to move forward, his project will involve following 1,400 soldiers who have recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan for one year to determine the link between an individual’s resiliency to PTSD and his or her genetics. He also will continue to work with Dr. Hicks in the study of how antidepressants affect PTSD resiliency.

“Right now, we have $3 million to start with, but I am hopeful that we will receive increased funding to continue to promote this area of research,” Dr. Young said. “It’s important that we keep searching for the root cause of PTSD and seek new treatments for our soldiers and veterans.”

The Texas A&M Health Science Center provides the state with health education, outreach and research. Its six components located in communities throughout Texas are Baylor College of Dentistry, the College of Medicine, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, the Institute of Biosciences and Technology, the Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy, and the School of Rural Public Health.

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