Two press pieces on the science (and anti-science) of PTSD in the military

The past weekend saw two articles in the popular press concerning PTSD among U.S. soldiers that are worth a read. First, the Seattle Times reported that the Army’s new PTSD screening guidelines fault the established screening tests designed to root out PTSD fakers. Why would anyone fake PTSD? The Army pays an average of $1.5 million in disability benefits per soldier (over his/her lifetime) with PTSD. It is estimated that 22 percent of returning soldiers have PTSD. The difference between those who have it and those who may be faking is no small chunk of change.

In part because of pressure by Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington) to investigate screening at the Madigan Army Medical Center (in Tacoma, Washington), the Army Surgeon General has issued new guidelines that criticize the use of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory — or, MMPI, as most psychologists know it. The MMPI is one of the most venerated of psychological screening questionnaires, holding up pretty well in over 60+ years of research (it has been revised several times, most recently in 2008). At issue in this case is the MMPI’s “lie scale,” which has been shown to detect malingerers of various stripes in multiple studies.

According the the Seattle Times, the Army’s new policy “specifically discounts tests used to determine whether soldiers are faking symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. It says that poor test results do not constitute malingering.” Technically this is true; malingering scale scores on any normed test like the MMPI are associated with higher or lower probabilities of malingering, and not absolute certainty. Still, by throwing out the best tool they have to detect whether soldiers are malingering or not, what the Army really seems to be doing is trying to avoid appearing callous by relying on scientific methods.

Ironically, the same guidelines include empirically-based treatment improvements regarding medication:

The document found “no benefit” from the use of Xanax, Librium, Valium and other drugs known as benzodiazepines in the treatment of PTSD among combat veterans. Moreover, use of those drugs can cause harm, the Surgeon General’s Office said. The drugs may increase fear and anxiety responses in these patients. And, once prescribed, they “can be very difficult, if not impossible, to discontinue,” due to significant withdrawal symptoms compounded by PTSD, the document states.

Score one for research on meds, zero for research on screening questionnaires (or maybe: psychiatrists one, psychologists zero).

The second article of note wasn’t a report, but an editorial. Writing in the New York Times’ Sunday Review, Weill Cornell Psychiatrist Richard Friedman builds the case that one possible reason for the increase in cases of PTSD among returning soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq is an increase in stimulants prescribed to them on the battlefield. With the help of the Freedom of Information Act, Dr. Friedman found that military spending on stimulants increased 1,000 percent over five years.

Stimulants do much more than keep troops awake. They can also strengthen learning. By causing the direct release of norepinephrine — a close chemical relative of adrenaline — in the brain, stimulants facilitate memory formation. Not surprisingly, emotionally arousing experiences — both positive and negative — also cause a surge of norepinephrine, which helps to create vivid, long-lasting memories. That’s why we tend to remember events that stir our feelings and learn best when we are a little anxious.

Since PTSD is basically a pathological form of learning known as fear conditioning, stimulants could plausibly increase the risk of getting the disorder.

Dr. Friedman goes on to explain the neurochemistry behind the proposed interaction of stimulants and trauma, review new research showing ameliorative effects of beta-blockers, and (appropriately) call for more transparency and more research on the topic.

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