By comparing 20,000 brain scans using single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) imaging, researchers have been able to tell traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) apart, despite the similar symptoms shared between the two conditions.

Reported to be the largest functional neuroimaging study, it was published recently in PLOS One, according to a news release from Theodore Henderson, MD, PhD, the study’s co-author.

“Now that we can tell the difference between TBI and PTSD, clinicians can apply more targeted and appropriate treatments, and achieve advances with their patients,” Henderson says in the release.

In their study, Henderson and his team used SPECT to obtain biological differences between TBI and PTSD in the brain. By doing so, they helped “demystify” these two conditions, as both TBI and PTSD may appear with symptoms such as anxiety, depression, mood dysregulation, irritability, and other cognitive breakdowns, according to the release.

Henderson notes in the release that the study contained a subset of closely matched patients and a larger data set of “real world” patients with multiple psychiatric or neurological conditions.

“The accuracy of the closely matched study was 100%, which replicates our research on veterans with TBI or PTSD (wherein the accuracy was 94%). It clearly delineates the potential of SPECT as a biomarker in differentiating TBI from PTSD—a critical issue for anyone suffering from symptoms with no answers,” he says in the release.

He emphasizes, however, that it is very important for patients to obtain an accurate diagnosis for TBI or PTSD because, even though they have similar symptoms, their treatments are very different.

“For example, some treatments for PTSD can actually be useless and possibly even harmful for TBI. Plus, TBI can refer to injury to any part of the brain, which would require different treatments as well,” he explains in the release.

Henderson says in the release that the study results could be particular noteworthy for the millions of Americans who play contact sports, citing sport-related concussion incidence rates being reported to top 3 million per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[Source: Theodore Henderson, MD, PhD]