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microRNAs in susceptibility to traumatic stress

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Predicting PTSD with miRNAs

Researchers with the EU-funded TraumiR project are working to determine whether micro ribonucleic acids could help predict an individual’s susceptibility to developing post-traumatic stress disorder.


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental disorder that can manifest following exposure to a threatening traumatic event, such as combat, assault or a natural disaster. The disease is characterised by such symptoms as re-experiencing the traumatic event through flashbacks or recurrent nightmares, constant avoidance of reminders of the event, negative moods and extreme arousal. Although 40-90 % of us are exposed to a traumatic event at some point during our lifetime, only a fraction (7 % and 12 %) will develop PTSD. Yet individuals with PTSD are six times more at risk of committing suicide, and the annual loss of productivity is estimated to be approximately USD 3 billion. “With no definite cure or effective treatments for every patient, we must focus on effective preventive strategies, early interventions and personalised medicine,” says TraumiR project coordinator Laurence de Nijs “To accomplish this, we need to identify markers that distinguish persons at high and low risk of developing PTSD following trauma exposure – which is exactly what the TraumiR project set out to do.” The potential of miRNA The aim of the EU-funded TraumiR (microRNAs in susceptibility to traumatic stress) project was to determine whether micro ribonucleic acids (miRNAs) could serve as biomarkers of the susceptibility to developing PTSD. To identify miRNA candidate molecules associated with the susceptibility to developing PTSD after exposure to traumatic stress in humans, researchers used blood samples from a large cohort of just over 1 000 Dutch military personnel deployed to an active war zone in Afghanistan. Although most of the soldiers had been exposed to trauma, only some showed signs of PTSD. Using modern sequencing techniques and bioinformatics tools, researchers identified several types of miRNAs where the blood levels differed between those suffering from PTSD and those with good mental health. When these human results were compared to results obtained from the blood of three animal models of PTSD, researchers found common miRNA between the mice and humans. These results were then further compared to miRNA profiles in the amygdala, a brain region involved in the development of PTSD, leading to the selection of one potential miRNA for further research. “In the end, we were able to demonstrate that this miRNA regulates stress-related abnormal memory associated with PTSD,” says de Nijs. “These interesting results are currently being replicated and validated in a cohort of US Marine veterans.” A potentially big impact Besides providing new insight on the biological mechanisms underlying differential susceptibility to traumatic stress, the TraumiR project also established the first step toward clinical applications. The project identified candidate miRNA profiles in blood that may predict susceptibility to traumatic stress, thus suggesting that miRNAs could potentially serve as biomarkers. Thanks to this research, soon it may be possible to improve the prediction of which people are more susceptible to develop PTSD, meaning these individuals can be differentiated from resilient ones through a simple blood test. If such a biomarker can be developed and validated, this could have an important impact on the field. “Given the relatively simple and objective measurement of miRNAs in blood, this screening method could be applicable to large communities, thus having an enormous impact on at-risk populations,” says de Nijs. “Considering the high prevalence and enormous burden of PTSD, a potential reduction of just 5 % of the incidence of PTSD will already have a vast impact on our health and society.”


TraumiR, post-traumatic stress disease, PTSD, mental health

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