PTSD-gene link found in Northern Illinois University students after campus shootings

Information on stress symptoms in the women that had been gathered before the shootings helped the researchers better assess what role their genetic makeup might have played in how they reacted to the violence, said Dr. Kerry Ressler, an Emory University researcher and the study’s senior author.

The study was released Monday in the September edition of Archives of General Psychiatry.

“This kind of research is extremely important” and could eventually “provide clues to novel treatment,” said Dr. John Krystal, psychiatry chairman at Yale University’s medical school and director of clinical neurosciences at the Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD. Krystal was not involved in the study.

The researchers analyzed genetic material in saliva samples women submitted after the shootings. The women also filled out questionnaires commonly used to assess PTSD and related symptoms, at two times after the shootings–two to four weeks afterward, and then an average of eight months afterward. By definition, PTSD persists for more than a month, but similar symptoms can develop soon after traumatic events.

The variations in the serotonin gene were found in 25 percent of the women studied. Overall, 52 percent of women with those variations developed early or later PTSD symptoms, versus 43 percent of women without the variations.

Among women who weren’t in the lecture hall during the shootings, 42 percent had early symptoms and 8 percent had lingering symptoms months later. Only a handful of women studied were in the hall; far more of them had early and persistent symptoms.

Holly Orcutt, an NIU psychology professor who took part in the research, did a separate analysis of about 20 students who’d been in the lecture hall during the shootings. She found PTSD symptoms in 84 percent shortly after the shootings. By September 2010, only 11 percent still had symptoms, a decline that “speaks to the resilience” of the students, Orcutt said. That analysis doesn’t appear in Archives.

The university set up special counseling services after the shootings that are still available since many students on campus in 2008 remain enrolled at NIU, she said.

The hall where the shootings took place is being remodeled, and a memorial sculpture to the slain students has been set up nearby.