Prescription Stimulants Linked To PTSD In Combat Veterans

By John Lavitt 11/30/15

The Pentagon released the results of a large study of service members who took stimulants while in combat situations.

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A new Pentagon study by the U.S. Department of Defense has linked stimulant use to a much greater risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Analyzing data from over 25,000 service members, department researchers found that those with prescriptions for the stimulants were five times more likely to have PTSD. The prescription stimulants, whether used to treat attention deficit problems or keep service members alert during long stretches of combat, seemed to increase the vulnerability of service members to PTSD and traumatic post-service memories.

In specific, prescription drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin seem most to blame for this issue. By raising concentrations of the brain chemical norepinephrine, these drugs open the door to more vivid and persistent memories of emotionally charged situations. The brain chemical norepinephrine has been shown to intensify such emotionally based memories, particularly when related to trauma.

Published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, researchers started with 25,971 active-duty troops who screened negative for PTSD and followed them from 2001-08. The subjects are part of the Pentagon's Millennium Cohort Study, which will track the mental health of service members for the next several decades. Of the 131 service members who were prescribed stimulants over the course of the study, a total of 20, or 15% also had PTSD. Controlling for a variety of socioeconomic, demographic, and health factors, the researchers found that was five times the rate for everybody else.

In a 2012 column for the New York Times, Dr. Richard Friedman, a psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, wrote that the drugs were compounding the psychological damage of the wars. Studies show that 12% of service members in infantry units during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq developed PTSD. "When you take a stimulant, you enhance learning,” said Dr. Friedman, who was not part of the study. "PTSD is a form of learning. Traumatic experiences hijack circuits in the brain."

Overall, the study examined 1,215 cases of PTSD in active service members and military veterans. The study found that those who had been prescribed stimulants were the most likely to have PTSD. The results did not prove that the drugs directly caused the disorder. Although there was no way for the researchers to absolutely know whether the PTSD existed before the stimulants were prescribed, in most cases, it seemed clear that the traumatic experiences happened in conjunction with the stimulant use.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.