Richard G. Petty, MD

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Resilience and the Brain

There has always been a puzzle about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD): why do some people get it and others don’t? It has always seemed that if the stress was bad enough, and particularly if it was unexpected, then pretty much anyone could get PTSD. But in between the mild stressor that makes one person fall apart and suffer terribly, while others scarcely notice, and the severe trauma that catches almost everyone, is a great unexplained mass of suffering people.

Six years ago research by Tamara Gurvits and her colleagues from the VA in Manchester, New Hampshire first suggested that people with PTSD may have some subtle neurological problems that couldn’t be explained away by alcohol abuse or injury. Now the same group has published a new study that adds significantly to our knowledge about this issue. A study of twins lead the investigators to conclude that the neurological abnormalities predated the PTSD and most likely predisposes patients to it.

The researchers studied 49 pairs of identical male twins in whom one twin had been exposed to combat during the Vietnam War and the other had not.

In 25 pairs the combat-exposed twin had a current diagnosis of PTSD, while the remaining 24 twins did not have the problem.

All the subjects were tested for what we call neurological “soft signs.” This is not a good term, and refers to subtle neurological disturbances, usually involving some complex systems of the brain. They include things like an impaired sense of direction, being able to do rapid, complex motor actions, copying pictures and movements. The combat veterans with PTSD scored higher on the soft signs tests than did the veterans without PTSD. But now it gets interesting: the identical twins of people with PTSD also had high soft sign scores. In other words there appears to a familial vulnerability to developing PTSD. This is consistent with a fascinating new paper on the neurological circuitry involved in fear. We can now map out some of the neurological vulnerabilities involved in PTSD as well as some of the neurological consequences of severe PTSD. Nobody knows if we can reverse them with psychological or other approaches, but we now think it is very possible.

There is a lot more work to be done. But as a first suggestion: someone who has this kind of evidence of vulnerability to PTSD should be the first to get advanced training in developing resilience. We already know that even the most limited efforts to bolster and develop resilience can have marked effects.

The key is to start building your resilience starting today.

“Always plan. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.”
–Richard C. Cushing (American Roman Catholic Cardinal, 1895-1970)

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About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.


2 Responses to “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Resilience and the Brain”
  1. says:

    A Biological Link to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

    Having recently suffered a very traumatic experience, I was quite interested to read this blog posting by Dr. Richard Petty.
    It suggests, in essence, that there are certain biological factors that put an individual at an increased risk of PTSD.  Th…

  2. Richard Petty says:

    There was a slight problem with submission on this other website, so I thought that I’d re-print what I wrote to Kyle:
    I’m so pleased that you found my article.

    These findings are, I think, very important indeed. There is sometimes still an unfortunate assumption that people who develop PTSD are weak or have low moral fiber. Both of which are patently absurd!

    I read about that horrible incident, and there’s no doubt that it would have been quite enough to trigger PTSD IF you have the high risk neurological configuration.

    I do wish you well, and hope that everything works out for you.

    Kindest regards,


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