Researchers Investigate Effect of PTSD on Brain Function

By Lois Baker

Release Date: December 6, 2007 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Police officers hold the second most stressful job (inner-city high school teacher is first), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This comes as no surprise to John Violanti, Ph.D., associate professor of social and preventive medicine in the University at Buffalo's School of Public Health and Health Professions and a former member of the New York State Police.

Violanti has conducted several studies on police health, and currently is principal investigator on a pilot study of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in police officers. The purpose of the study, funded by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), is to determine if symptoms of PTSD in police officers are associated with changes in brain structure and function. Violanti said data from the $26,000 pilot study will form the basis for a much larger project.

He will be working with colleagues in UB's Jacobs Neurological Institute (JNI), which is the Department of Neurology in the university's School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and its Buffalo Neuroimaging Analysis Center (BNAC), taking advantage of the BNAC's advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) capabilities.

"Our aim is to assess the association of PTSD symptoms and changes in brain function and structure in police officers, a group routinely exposed to traumatic work situations," said Violanti.

"Chronic and severe stress is thought to decrease blood flow between emotional and thinking areas of the brain, leading to lingering memories and thoughts of stressful experiences. This can, in turn, lead to shrinkage of the hippocampus, an area of the brain that involves memory and extinction of fear."

Participants will be exposed to pleasant and stressful images while undergoing an MRI. Researchers will examine and measure changes in the emotional and reasoning regions of the brain during these exposures.

Violanti said previous MRI studies of PTSD involved primarily victims of war or sexual abuse. "This study will allow further generalization of results from previous studies by including an additional group exposed to traumatic experiences on a regular basis -- the police," he noted.

"In addition, it will allow for examination of the association between brain physiology, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and different types of trauma experienced by police officers, as well as across multiple criteria for PTSD as outlined by the DSM-IV," Violanti said. "These parameters have not been adequately addressed in previous studies. Mediating and/or confounding variables such as personal resiliency, gender and age will be assessed."

Collaborators on the study are Janet Shucard, Ph.D., and David Shucard, Ph.D., from the JNI; Jennifer Cox, Ph.D., from the BNAC; Charles Chung, M.D., from the UB Department of Radiology, and Holly Fetter, Ph.D., from Canisius College.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York. The School of Public Health and Health Professions and School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, along with the School of Dental Medicine, School of Nursing and School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, constitute UB's Academic Health Center. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.