Saliva May Help Diagnose PTSD in Veterans

Saliva May Help Diagnose PTSD in Veterans

A recent study finds that former soldiers with post traumatic stress disorders have a certain set of bacteria in their saliva, a distinct signature that is believed to be the first biological marker for PTSD.

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As a bioinformatician and young veteran, Guy Shapira welcomed the opportunity to help with conducting a study to determine if saliva can reveal if war veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

The research team, which drew mostly from Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine and Sagol School of Neuroscience, collected saliva samples from approximately 200 veterans who suffered psychological trauma stemming from the years they spent fighting in the First Lebanon War in 1982. The researchers also characterized the participants’ psychological, social and medical conditions, including a detailed analysis of their microbiomes.

They found that the former soldiers with PTSD have a certain set of bacteria in their saliva, a distinct microbiotic signature that is believed to be the first biological marker for PTSD. The finding suggests that, in the future, saliva tests could be used to help identify this disorder. As of now, PTSD is often challenging to diagnose.

Shapira, a Ph.D. student at Tel Aviv University, was responsible for examining genetic and health-related data of the veterans who participated – information that had been compiled steadily over four decades. The veterans provided this data voluntarily, Shapira says, at least partly because the study carries important implications for their own psychological health.

The research was led by Illana Gozes, professor emerita of clinical biochemistry. “We looked at the bacteria in their blood and their saliva,” Gozes explains. To discover the microbial signatures, they analyzed the biometric data for each soldier individually and as a group. Comparing the results of the participants’ microbial distribution to the results of their psychological examinations and their responses to personal welfare questionnaires, the researchers learned that veterans with PTSD – and, more generally, those with significant mental health issues – have the same bacterial content in their saliva.

“Having empirical metrics to assess whether or not someone has PTSD can help veterans who make their case to the Army to get reparations,” Shapira says.

More research is required to support this finding, published in July in Nature’s prestigious Molecular Psychiatry, but it could have important implications for identifying people with PTSD. Currently, it can be diagnosed only through psychological and behavioral symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, sleep disorders, increased irritability and physical aggressiveness. Veterans sometimes don’t report these symptoms to health providers or realize they’re related to the trauma they experienced during combat.

The researchers also identified a correlation that indicates people with a higher level of education show a lower occurrence of the microbiotic signature linked to PTSD, while people who experienced greater exposure to air pollution show a higher occurrence of this signature. That confirms their finding that the veterans’ health is dependent on their individual biology combined with the conditions of their environment.

“Thanks to this study, it may be possible in the future to use objective molecular and biological characteristics to distinguish PTSD sufferers, taking into account environmental influences,” Gozes said in an article in Israel21c. “We hope that this new discovery and the microbial signatures described in this study might promote easier diagnosis of post-traumatic stress in soldiers so they can receive appropriate treatment.”

Gozes added that roughly a third of the subjects in their study hadn’t been diagnosed with PTSD previously. That meant they had never received any support from Israel’s Ministry of Defense or other officials for treatment and reparations, the payments to compensate for injuries sustained during war.

Shapira’s motivation to participate in this study is personal as well as professional: in addition to being veteran himself, his father served in the First Lebanon War. “Fortunately, he did not develop any PTSD, despite being shot in the foot...some of his friends died, so it wasn’t easy on him,” says Shapira.

“Having empirical metrics to assess whether or not someone has PTSD can help veterans who make their case to the Army to get reparations,” Shapira says. “It is a very difficult and demanding process, so the more empirical metrics we have to assess PTSD, the less people will have to suffer in these committees and unending examinations that are mostly pitched against the veterans because the state is trying to avoid spending too much money.”

Christopher Johnston
Christopher Johnston has published more than 3,500 articles in publications including American Theatre, Christian Science Monitor, History Magazine, and Scientific American. His book, Shattering Silences: Strategies to Prevent Sexual Assault, Heal Survivors, and Bring Assailants to Justice (Skyhorse) was published in May 2018. He is a member of the Board of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
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