Flimsy Sanity: Your Brain on Stress - PTSD

Flimsy Sanity

In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. - Friedrich Nietzsche

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Your Brain on Stress - PTSD

The Pentagon is going to spend $300 million on researching PTSD and brain injuries. I could possibly see spending that much money researching some phenomenon that has never been seen before but child abuse, spousal abuse, homeless Vietnam veterans, any number of traumas leading to this syndrome are as common as dirt and develop when an individual is helpless to control his/her situation. John Read, in Models of Madness explains that the majority of mentally ill have been abused or lived extremely stressful lives. Psychiatry used to attempt to help people deal with problems, but now they just prescribe a pill for chemical imbalance that dulls rather than resolves the problem. Unfortunately the pill usually brings a basketfull of metabolic changes with it. The Wikipedia entry on PTSD is all about brain changes with little space devoted to the causes.

Regarding "changes in the brain": Of course, stress causes all kinds of body changes - and historically not remedied by a medical solution. In the book, The Trouble with Testosterone and other Essays on The Biology of the Human Predicament by Robert Sapolsky, he talks about how poor people's corpses (in a previous, interesting section on grave robbing and unscrupulous morticians) were used exclusively for early medical training.
Consider the adrenal gland. When the owner of the organ is in a fight or flight state, the adrenal gland excretes adreneline and a class of steroids known as glucocotticoids which speed up the heart rate and the metabolism. People who live in chronically stressful conditions place a constant demand on their adrenal glands to produce the hormones and the glands may grow larger in compensation...But medical scientists before the 1930's did not know this fact. Physicians, examining cadavers predominantly of the poor, thought they were learning what a normal adrenal gland looks like, instead and unknowingly, they were observing the physiological effects of a lifetime of poverty, On the infrequent occasion when the body of someone with a higher income was examined, it was noted that the adrenal glands seemed oddly undersized - lighter in average weight than the ones mentioned in pathology journals and not at all like the ones observed in medical school. Unfamiliar with the appearance of a normal adrenal gland, physicians invented a new disease to explain their discovery: idiopathic adrenal atrophy...This "disease" flourished in the early twentieth century.

When a person is in a state of stress, the hormones secreted by the adrenal glands suppress the immune response. The chronic stress experienced by poverty-stricken people eventually can cause glands essential to the immune system, such as the thymus, located in the throat, to shrivel away to virtually nothing. As a result a disproportionately large amount of autopsy material - derived as it is from people with diseases caused by chronic stress and deprivation - included atrophied thymus glands. Thus what was regarded in the 1930's as a normal sized thymus was actually a greatly shrunken one. The stage was set for a horrendous medical blunder.
For some time pediatricians had identified a relatively new disorder known colloquially as crib death and now sudden infant death syndrome...A pathologist named Paltauf working at the end of the nineteenth century, adopted a logical course of research. He carefully autopsied SIDS infants and compared the results with autopsies on non-SIDS infants. It is perfectly obvious today what was occurring. The latter group, of course, had died of chronic, stressful illnesses that caused thymic atrophy, whereas the former had died suddenly. In examining the SIDS infants, Paltauf was the first pathologist to be systematically observing normal-sized thymuses.

But he had no way of knowing this, and Paltauf framed a hypothesis for the cause of SIDS that got normal and abnormal confused. In some infants, it seemed to him, the thymus was so abnormally enlarged tht during sleep it pressed down on the trachea, suffocating the infant. By the turn of the century the disorder had a name, status thymicolymphaticus, and by the 1920s all the leading pediatric textbooks were offering the same advice: To prevent SIDS infants' throats should be irradiated to shrink the menacing thymus. The treatment became the pediatric fad, persisting well into the 1950s. The spurious cure for this spurious disease eventually led to tens of thousands of cases of thyroid cancer.

Wouldn't establishing many local weekly meetings modeled on the AA peer counseling model be more useful to people who should talk about things in a safe, non-judgmental environment over and over until even they get bored with it and move on? A great many of the people who suffer from wartime PTSD do so because they feel guilty about what they did or helpless to stop atrocities and this does not harmonize with being treated as a hero upon returning to their homes. Of course, a child being abused is in a worse predicament because he/she is alone - not surrounded by buddies - but society as a whole suffers from victims of PTSD because a major coping mechanism is detachment. There are reasons why most violent criminals come from abused childhoods and why PTSD soldiers cannot cope with returning and turn to suicide and street fighting. No studies needed here.


  • At 7:21 AM, Blogger ryk said…

    We're going to be paying for this war for a long time.

  • At 8:45 AM, Blogger wagelaborer said…

    That's some very interesting info.
    I met an Iraq vet who did 2 tours, and then discovered what was going on. He is pissed. Said he sits in his room all day, madder than hell.
    That kind of worried me. I tried to get him to join IVAW, but he didn't want to.
    I was thinking that they would be a support group for him. He said that no one understands what he went through, but certainly they would.
    Anyway, he's a sweet kid, and I'm worried about him.

  • At 8:49 AM, Blogger wagelaborer said…

    And my friend from a smaller town knows a woman whose son was in Iraq, who called his dad, saying that he couldn't do what they wanted him to do. His dad told him to just do what he was told.
    Now he's in a base in Texas, and his dad went down to visit, and he was upset and crying and threw his medals down and said he didn't deserve them.
    Another victim of imperialism. I wouldn't be surprised if he committed suicide.
    My friend tried to get the mother to give him info on IVAW, but she is a redneck and didn't do it.


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