Dissecting the heterogeneity of posttraumatic stress disorder: differences in polygenic risk, stress exposures, and course of PTSD subtypes

Psychol Med. 2021 May 5;52(15):1-9. doi: 10.1017/S0033291721000428. Online ahead of print.


Background: Definition of disorder subtypes may facilitate precision treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We aimed to identify PTSD subtypes and evaluate their associations with genetic risk factors, types of stress exposures, comorbidity, and course of PTSD.

Methods: Data came from a prospective study of three U.S. Army Brigade Combat Teams that deployed to Afghanistan in 2012. Soldiers with probable PTSD (PTSD Checklist for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-Fifth Edition ≥31) at three months postdeployment comprised the sample (N = 423) for latent profile analysis using Gaussian mixture modeling and PTSD symptom ratings as indicators. PTSD profiles were compared on polygenic risk scores (derived from external genomewide association study summary statistics), experiences during deployment, comorbidity at three months postdeployment, and persistence of PTSD at nine months postdeployment.

Results: Latent profile analysis revealed profiles characterized by prominent intrusions, avoidance, and hyperarousal (threat-reactivity profile; n = 129), anhedonia and negative affect (dysphoric profile; n = 195), and high levels of all PTSD symptoms (high-symptom profile; n = 99). The threat-reactivity profile had the most combat exposure and the least comorbidity. The dysphoric profile had the highest polygenic risk for major depression, and more personal life stress and co-occurring major depression than the threat-reactivity profile. The high-symptom profile had the highest rates of concurrent mental disorders and persistence of PTSD.

Conclusions: Genetic and trauma-related factors likely contribute to PTSD heterogeneity, which can be parsed into subtypes that differ in symptom expression, comorbidity, and course. Future studies should evaluate whether PTSD typology modifies treatment response and should clarify distinctions between the dysphoric profile and depressive disorders.

Keywords: Posttraumatic stress disorder; latent class analysis; military personnel; polygenic risk scores; typology.