Many people undergo stressful or traumatic events during their lifetime, some more frequently than others. While there are a multitude of different stressors and everyone reacts in their own way, evidence shows that it is possible for two people to experience the same trauma that results in only one of them developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). An article from McClean Hospital states that one of the main explanations for this circumstance relies on genetics.
Scientists have discovered that individual risk for PTSD is highly influenced by genetic variation. Research is still being done to determine which genes are involved with this risk and how they interact with environmental responses. The gene FKBP5 is one of the genes most commonly known to interact with environmental factors to instigate the development of PTSD. FKBP5 is responsible for regulating the brain’s response to stress (affecting the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis) and causes the release of cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone”. The body is designed to release cortisol in order to help us cope with stressful situations. However, genetic variants to the FKBP5 gene can disrupt the system, causing either unrestrained or inadequate activation of cortisol release. Problems like these can also inhibit the ability to turn off the release of cortisol when the stressful situation is over. This type of dysfunction puts people at a much higher risk for developing PTSD.
While FKBP5 is a major gene that affects a person’s predisposition to PTSD, scientists have yet to discover the entire complex system of genes and environmental factors that can impact individual risk. One of the biological concepts that helps explain how both genetics and outside experiences affect this predisposition on the molecular level is known as environmental epigenetics, which is “the idea that we are not simply a product of our genes but also our experience”. While the genes we inherit from our parents play crucial roles, external factors and how they affect us are just as important.
Having family in the military makes this topic very important to me, as PTSD is most common in police officers, firefighters, and soldiers. I am thankful that researchers are continuing to study the development of PTSD as well as finding new methods of treating it.