A study published online in Molecular Psychiatry reports that researchers have discovered a new gene that is associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The findings suggest that retinoid-related orphan receptor alpha (RORA) is involved in protecting brain cells from the damaging effects of stress and that it could also play a role in developing PTSD.

PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that is characterized by serious changes in behavioral, cognitive, emotional and psychological functioning after experiencing a psychologically traumatic event. According to earlier research, around 8% of the U.S. population will develop PTSD at some time in their life. This figure is considerably higher amongst veterans, with as many as 1 in 5 veterans suffering from PTSD. Earlier genome wide-association studies (GWAS) have associated the RORA gene to other psychiatric conditions, such as bipolar disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression and autism.

Leading researcher Mark W. Miller, PhD, associate professor at BUSM and a clinical research psychologist in the National Center for PTSD at VA Boston Healthcare System said:

“Like PTSD, all of these conditions have been linked to alterations in brain functioning, so it is particularly interesting that one of the primary functions of RORA is to protect brain cells from the damaging effects of oxidative stress, hypoxia and inflammation.”

The study involved around 500 male and female veterans and their intimate partners, who had all experienced trauma, whilst around half of the participants experienced PTSD. Most of the veterans suffered trauma during their military experience, whilst their intimate partners had experienced trauma through experiences like physical or sexual assault, serious accidents, or the sudden death of a loved one.

Following an interview with a trained clinician, each participant agreed to donate their DNA from a blood sample, which was subsequently analyzed for around 1.5 million genetic markers with regard to signs of links with PTSD. The findings revealed a highly important link with a variant (rs8042149) in the RORA gene.

The researchers subsequently used data from the Detroit Neighborhood Health Study to look for evidence of replication and also discovered a considerable but weaker link between PTSD and RORA.

Miller concluded:

“These results suggest that individuals with the RORA risk variant are more likely to develop PTSD following trauma exposure and point to a new avenue for research on how the brain responds to trauma.”

Written by Petra Rattue