Serum brain-derived neurotrophic factor remains elevated after long term follow-up of combat veterans with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder


Attempts to correlate blood levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have provided conflicting results. Some studies found a positive association between BDNF and PTSD diagnosis and symptom severity, while others found the association to be negative. The present study investigated whether serum levels of BDNF are different cross-sectionally between combat trauma-exposed veterans with and without PTSD, as well as whether longitudinal changes in serum BDNF differ as a function of PTSD diagnosis over time. We analyzed data of 270 combat trauma-exposed veterans (230 males, 40 females, average age: 33.29 ± 8.28 years) and found that, at the initial cross-sectional assessment (T0), which averaged 6 years after the initial exposure to combat trauma (SD = 2.83 years), the PTSD positive group had significantly higher serum BDNF levels than the PTSD negative controls [31.03 vs. 26.95 ng/mL, t(268) = 3.921, p < 0.001]. This difference remained significant after excluding individuals with comorbid major depressive disorder, antidepressant users and controlling for age, gender, race, BMI, and time since trauma. Fifty-nine of the male veterans who participated at the first timepoint (T0) were re-assessed at follow-up evaluation (T1), approximately 3 years (SD = 0.88 years) after T0. A one-way ANOVA comparing PTSD positive, “subthreshold PTSD” and control groups revealed that serum BDNF remained significantly higher in the PTSD positive group than the control group at T1 [30.05 vs 24.66 ng/mL, F(2, 56) = 3.420, p = 0.040]. Serum BDNF levels did not correlate with PTSD symptom severity at either time point within the PTSD group [r(128) = 0.062, p = 0.481 and r(28) = 0.157, p = 0.407]. Serum BDNF did not significantly change over time within subjects [t(56) = 1.269, p = 0.210] nor did the change of serum BDNF from T0 to T1 correlate with change in PTSD symptom severity within those who were diagnosed with PTSD at T0 [r(27) = −0.250, p = 0.192]. Our longitudinal data are the first to be reported in combat PTSD and suggest that higher serum BDNF levels may be a stable biological characteristic of chronic combat PTSD independent of symptom severity.

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