Background: Traumatic stress can adversely affect physical and mental health through neurobiological stress response systems. We examined the effects of trauma exposure and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on telomere length, a biomarker of cellular aging, and volume of the amygdala, a key structure of stress regulation, in combat-exposed veterans. In addition, the relationships of psychopathological symptoms and autonomic function with telomere length and amygdala volume were examined.
Methods: Male combat veterans were categorized as having PTSD diagnosis (n = 102) or no lifetime PTSD diagnosis (n = 111) based on the Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale. Subjects were assessed for stress-related psychopathology, trauma severity, autonomic function, and amygdala volumes by magnetic resonance imaging.
Results: A significant interaction was found between trauma severity and PTSD status for telomere length and amygdala volume after adjusting for multiple confounders. Subjects with PTSD showed shorter telomere length and larger amygdala volume than those without PTSD among veterans exposed to high trauma, while there was no significant group difference in these parameters among those exposed to low trauma. Among veterans exposed to high trauma, greater telomere shortening was significantly correlated with greater norepinephrine, and larger amygdala volume was correlated with more severe psychological symptoms and higher heart rates.
Conclusions: These data suggest that the intensity of the index trauma event plays an important role in interacting with PTSD symptomatology and autonomic activity in predicting telomere length and amygdala volume. These results highlight the importance of trauma severity and PTSD status in predicting certain biological outcomes.
Keywords: Amygdala; Autonomic nervous system; Combat trauma; PTSD; Stress; Telomere length.
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