Owen carefully studies the revolving fan above him, while his girlfriend Cristina sleeps silently next to him. Finally, he drifts into what appears to be a peaceful sleep. But later, Cristina awakes under the pressure of his body and due to a severe loss of breath—Owen is straddling her, with two strong hands gripping her neck and cutting off her airway. Thankfully, their friend and roommate Callie hears the struggle and rushes in. It is only then that Owen realizes what he’s doing and who he’s doing it to; he releases and collapses in terror of what he’s just done.

If you’re a Grey’s Anatomy fan, you’re probably familiar with this scene. This is where we see just how harmful the effects of PTSD are on war veteran and surgical attending Owen Hunt. In Owen’s mind, he wasn’t choking Cristina, he was protecting himself from being killed in the war—thanks to one of the many symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: flashbacks. Individuals who suffer from PTSD also commonly experience distressing dreams, thoughts, feelings, and memories relating to a traumatic event, which can be easily triggered by one’s environment. Owen, for example, is at times overwhelmed by patients and their injuries, and easily disturbed by sudden, loud noises.

Owen may be a fictional character, but PTSD is a very real mental illness that affects an estimated 13 million Americans right now. And every single day, we’re learning more and more about it. A new study “Aberrant brain response after auditory deviance in PTSD compared to trauma controls: An EEG study” from the Universities of Birmingham and Amsterdam offers an explanation for why PTSD sufferers (like Owen) are so sensitive to environmental changes: their brains over process them. Furthermore, the researchers found that the more enhanced responses equated the worst cognitive and memory performances.

To reach these findings, the group of researchers used an electroencephalogram (EEG)—which tracks electrical activity in the brain—to study the brain activity of two different groups: the first consisted of 13 patients diagnosed with PTSD and the other was comprised of people who suffered a similar trauma but did not develop PTSD. Dr. Ali Mazaheri, associate professor in the School of Psychology at University of Birmingham, explains this process and subsequent results:

    “In this study, we tested the brain’s response to a simple auditory sensory change by playing simple (Standard 1000Hz) tones every second, and then intermittently playing a slightly altered one (1200Hz), known as deviant. What we found was that patients who had developed PTSD showed enhanced brain responses to deviant tones, suggesting their brain over-processed any change in the environment.”

This is a revolutionary, unique study, according to Katrin Bangel of the University of Amsterdam, who explains its importance: “We now potentially have a new neurobiological marker for PTSD patients that maps to their own individual symptoms. This marker, if validated, could be used to assess if an individual is getting better with treatment. It can also be potentially used in diagnosing patients.”

University of Birmingham (2017, November 30). People With PTSD React Differently to Certain Sounds. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved November 30, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/sound-ptsd-8069/

Bangel, K. A., van Buschbach, S., Smit, D., Mazaheri, A., & Olff M. (2017 November 29). Aberrant brain response after auditory deviance in PTSD compared to trauma controls: An EEG study. Scientific Reports. Retrieved on December 6 2017 from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-16669-8