A Michigan State University (MSU) professor completed a study identifying two biomarkers in recent Middle Eastern war refugees that appear to be related to post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems. These are manifested by elevated levels of two brain chemicals, including 1) neurotrophic growth factor and 2) nerve growth factor in the blood of refugees from Iraq and Syria exhibiting symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Known as neurotrophins, they influence how the brain forms new connections between neurons in response to brain injuries known as a process called neuroplasticity.
Summary of the Findings
The study results recently published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, the study’s principal investigator, Bengt Arnetz, MD, reports: “in effect, the neurotrophins created a dysfunctional rewiring of the brain that makes the refugees relive these experiences” and this represents “a new finding.”
The research team studied whether those refugees who reported they had been exposed to environmental contaminants, from lead to other heavy metals, had higher levels of the two neurotrophins in their blood. And, in fact, they have found that the refugees from Iraq and Syria have been more likely to have been exposed to environmental contaminants and in fact the researchers found higher levels of manganese in their bodies.
The MSU team, in collaboration with researchers from Wayne State University, found that those refugees with more amounts of lead in the blood also had elevated levels of the two neurotrophins and scored higher on a PTSD index.
Recommendation for Additional Research
The researchers believe that further research is required to better understand how the psychological trauma of war and environmental exposure contribute to adverse mental health.
Bengt Arnetz, MD, chair of the College of Human Medicine Department of Family Medicine
Note, there were other participating researchers from MSU and Wayne State University.