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  • Writer's pictureDr. Martin Polanco

How PTSD Changes the Brain

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that is developed as a response to experiencing or witnessing a traumatic and stressful event. Experiences like the threat of death or extreme bodily harm, sexual assault, physical violence, a terrorist act, military combat, car accident, earthquake, any natural disaster or a sudden event experienced as dangerous to self or others.

PTSD can occur in all people, from any ethnicity, nationality or culture, and any age. PTSD affects approximately 3.5 % of the US adults, and estimated one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime. “PTSD has greatly increased with recently returning service members and veterans, it is not new and nor limited to combat, say’s by Martin Polanco MD.”

Roughly 30 percent of Vietnam veterans developed PTSD. The disorder also has been detected in as many as 10 percent of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans, about 6 percent to 11 percent of veterans of the Afghanistan war, and about 12 percent to 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq war. For veterans, factors related to combat may further increase the risk for PTSD and other mental health problems. These include the veteran's role in the war, the politics around the war, where it's fought, and the type of enemy faced.

A person that suffers from PTSD will have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experiences that last long after the traumatic event happened. The person may relive the event through flashbacks and nightmares; feeling sadness, fear, anger, anxiety and detached from other people are some of the manifestations of having PTSD.

Those with PTSD often have difficulty functioning in everyday life, and symptoms can persist for months. PTSD can cause serious disruption in the ability to have healthy, satisfying relationships or tolerate life’s uncertainties, failures, and rejections without excess distress. It is important to understand the magnitude of this disorder as it affects many people’s lives, finding out whether a person has PTSD is the first step towards healing.

Some of the symptoms of PTSD are:

  • Disturbances in threat perception, threat sensitivity and self-image

  • Difficulty in emotional functioning

  • Disruption of sleep

  • Negative mood

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Difficulty with attention and concentration

  • Anger and fear

  • Low-self esteem

Understanding how PTSD affects the brain is critical for finding effective treatments. In PTSD, the stress circuitry in the brain gets unbalanced, disrupting communication between several centers in the brain.

PTSD affects the amygdala, which monitors incoming perceptions and red-flags threast, putting systems on high alert and setting off the stress response. It also changes the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, or executive control center of the brain, which normally senses when a threat isover and dampens the amygdala activity; also affecting the hippocampus, where memories are stored and retrieved.

The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped region of the brain that plays a role in several functions, PTSD affects the areas related to the assessment of threat-related stimuli in the environment, the formation and storage of emotional memories, fear conditioning and memory consolidation.

PTSD also affects the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain found in the frontal lobe. Some of the key functions of the prefrontal cortex that are damaged by trauma are: emotional regulation, conscious behaviors, regulating attention, decision-making, and interpreting emotions.

The impact of trauma seen in the hippocampus of PTSD patients shows a considerable reduction in the volume of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is where new memories are recorded and from where they are retrieved later in response to specific and relevant environmental stimuli. The hippocampus also helps us distinguish between past and present memories.

People who suffer from PTSD with reduced hippocampal volume lose the ability to discriminate between past and present experiences or correctly interpret environmental contexts. The neural mechanisms involved trigger extreme stress responses when confronted with environmental situations that only remotely resemble something from their traumatic past.

Researchers believe that the brain changes caused by PTSD increase the likelihood of a person developing other mood disorders. Learning about how PTSD alters the brain chemistry is critical to finding solutions and in understanding the challenging condition of those who suffer from it.

There are multiple treatment approaches focused on helping heal PTSD and recover from its effects. The main treatments for people with PTSD are psychotherapy, medications, or both. Due to differences in experience and consequence of the trauma, treatment varies and is tailored to the symptoms and needs of the individual.Though not everyone suffering from the disorder has been benefiting from these conventional treatments.

Alternative treatments like acupuncture, meditation, yoga, massage, spinal manipulation, traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine are some of the ways people are finding relief from the symptoms of PTSD. Other treatments include psychedelic therapy with the use of research methods for treating anxiety, depression, trauma relief through medicinal substances like MDMA, Ayahuasca, Ibogaine, 5Meo-DMT, cannabis and psilocybin.

Dr. Martin Polanco has conducted research related to the therapeutic use of ibogaine and 5Meo-DMT for addiction treatment, with results that show the effects of both substances in rewiring the brain to a balanced state. He currently provides psychedelic therapeutic treatment for veterans suffering from PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) with the use of Ibogaine and 5Meo-DMT. The improvement in well being of those who have gone through the treatment is outstanding- with more than 80% of patients reporting a complete reversal of symptoms of PTSD.

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