Brain Scans to Distinguish Between Brain Injury and PTSD

The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury overlap in a dizzying blur of similarity: depression, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, fatigue, loss of interest, and more.

Mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI)—the result of the head being hit or violently shaken—and PTSD plague returning veterans and affect civilians: Each year, an estimated 8 million adults have PTSD and 1.3 million Americans sustain a mild brain injury.

Currently, there is no screening tool or instrument to reliably diagnose either condition. Instead, one’s best chance for an accurate diagnosis is an interview with a skilled physician. Due to the subjective nature of that process, many cases of each condition go undetected or misdiagnosed.

Now, a team at Cambridge, Mass.-based Draper, a not-for-profit research and development company, Harvard Medical School, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital is developing a non-invasive test to provide a straightforward diagnosis for either condition (or both). “It’s essentially a non-invasive biopsy looking at the chemical constituents of the brain, and trying to use that to make a diagnosis,” says John Irvine, Draper’s chief data scientist.

At the Center for Clinical Spectroscopy at Brigham and Women’s, Alexander Lin oversees the brain scans of veterans who have experienced a trauma, as well as healthy veterans and civilians as controls. Each participant lies down in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. A typical MRI scan uses powerful magnetic fields to produce spatial images of the brain or other organs. Lin instead applies a different protocol,…[Read more]