Pathophysiological Bases of Comorbidity: Traumatic Brain Injury and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

J Neurotrauma. 2018 Jan 15;35(2):210-225. doi: 10.1089/neu.2016.4953. Epub 2017 Nov 3.


The high rates of traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnoses encountered in recent years by the United States Veterans Affairs Healthcare System have increased public awareness and research investigation into these conditions. In this review, we analyze the neural mechanisms underlying the TBI/PTSD comorbidity. TBI and PTSD present with common neuropsychiatric symptoms including anxiety, irritability, insomnia, personality changes, and memory problems, and this overlap complicates diagnostic differentiation. Interestingly, both TBI and PTSD can be produced by overlapping pathophysiological changes that disrupt neural connections termed the "connectome." The neural disruptions shared by PTSD and TBI and the comorbid condition include asymmetrical white matter tract abnormalities and gray matter changes in the basolateral amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. These neural circuitry dysfunctions result in behavioral changes that include executive function and memory impairments, fear retention, fear extinction deficiencies, and other disturbances. Pathophysiological etiologies can be identified using experimental models of TBI, such as fluid percussion or blast injuries, and for PTSD, using models of fear conditioning, retention, and extinction. In both TBI and PTSD, there are discernible signs of neuroinflammation, excitotoxicity, and oxidative damage. These disturbances produce neuronal death and degeneration, axonal injury, and dendritic spine dysregulation and changes in neuronal morphology. In laboratory studies, various forms of pharmacological or psychological treatments are capable of reversing these detrimental processes and promoting axonal repair, dendritic remodeling, and neurocircuitry reorganization, resulting in behavioral and cognitive functional enhancements. Based on these mechanisms, novel neurorestorative therapeutics using anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anticonvulsant agents may promote better outcomes for comorbid TBI and PTSD.

Keywords: PTSD; TBI; comorbidity; excitotoxicity; neuroinflammation; oxidative stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Brain Injuries, Traumatic / epidemiology*
  • Brain Injuries, Traumatic / physiopathology*
  • Comorbidity
  • Humans
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / epidemiology*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / physiopathology*