Massage therapy has been shown to reduce stress and lower blood pressure, and is utilized to assuage effects of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In new research, PTSD has been shown to result from changes to genes following traumatic events.

Researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that traumatic experiences biologically embed themselves in select genes, altering their functions and leading to the development of PTSD, according to a university press release.

“Our findings suggest a new biological model of PTSD in which alteration of genes, induced by a traumatic event, changes a person’s stress response and leads to the disorder,” said lead researcher Sandro Galea, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the school.

Previous studies have found lifetime experiences may alter the activity of specific genes by changing their methylation patterns. Methylated genes are generally inactive, while unmethylated genes are generally active.

The new study is the first large-scale investigation to search for trauma-induced changes in the genes of people with PTSD.

DNA samples were obtained from participants in the Detroit Neighborhood Health Study, a longitudinal epidemiologic study investigating PTSD and other mental disorders. The researchers analyzed the methylation patterns of more than 14,000 genes from blood samples taken from 100 Detroit residents, 23 of whom suffer from PTSD.

The analysis found that participants with PTSD had six to seven times more unmethylated genes than unaffected participants, and most of the unmethylated genes were involved in the immune system.

While people who experience severe trauma will exhibit a normal stress response, in PTSD, the stress response system becomes deregulated and chronically overactive, causing compromised immune functioning. PTSD has long been linked to increased risk of numerous physical health problems, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

“Identification of the biologic underpinnings of PTSD will be crucial,” Galea said, ” … particularly in the wake of an increasing number of military veterans returning home following recent wars worldwide.”

The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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