(PSYCHIATRIC TIMES) - Over 50% of U.S. women and 60% of men report having experienced a traumatic event at some point in their lives. However, only a minority (approximately 10% of women and 5% of men) report having ever developed posttraumatic stress disorder, the most prominent psychiatric disorder associated with traumatic events (Kessler et al., 1995). This disparity between the prevalence of exposure to traumatic events and the development of PTSD has driven research to determine the etiology of PTSD and identify factors that increase risk for the disorder. One area of research that has received relatively little attention is genetics.
Why has the genetics of PTSD been neglected? One reason is that it is a relatively new diagnosis. Although versions of what we now call PTSD have existed under different names (e.g., shell shock, gross stress reaction), it was not until 1980, with the publication of the DSM-III, that the diagnosis was codified. Since the diagnosis of PTSD requires exposure to a traumatic event, much of the early research on etiology was understandably focused on identifying trauma-related and other environmental risk factors.
A further reason the genetics of PTSD has received so little attention is that, until the 1990s, it was commonly thought to be prevalent only among specific subpopulations (e.g., Vietnam War combat veterans) and rare in the general population. This misconception was corrected with the publication of several groundbreaking epidemiologic studies of trauma exposure and PTSD. These studies consistently demonstrated that both exposure to traumatic events and PTSD are common (Breslau et al., 1991; Kessler et al., 1995; Resnick et al., 1993).
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