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Meg Farris / Eyewitness News
Email: mfarris@wwltv.com | Twitter: @megfarriswwl

NEW ORLEANS -- A new discovery by a local doctor could uncover a way to prevent a debilitating mental illness that is very common.

Last fall, retired U.S. Army Major Ben Richards came to New Orleans from Iowa in hopes of saving his family and marriage. He was told there was nothing more that could be done for his post traumatic stress disorder.

He couldn't sleep, was hyper reactive with nightmares of inescapable death, depressed and having emotional outbursts, irritable moods and memory problems.

'The difficulty of having an injury like traumatic brain injury or the behavior injuries, post traumatic stress disorder, is they're invisible injuries,' said Richards in November 2012.

But now a doctor at LSU Health Sciences Center has hopes of preventing PTSD in veterans, survivors of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, and survivors of violence and crime.

'This is very surprising to me because now we realize during particular stage, this gene is important,' said Dr. Ya-Ping Tang, an associate professor of cell biology and anatomy at LSU Health Sciences Center and the lead researcher of the published findings.

Doctors already know genes you inherit play an important role in your brain's function and risk for anxiety disorder. But they've discovered now that when a certain gene is turned on during trauma, that makes the brain in animal models vulnerable to getting PTSD.

Lab microscope images show more black dots, or brain cell connections, and communication in the model brains without PTSD than the ones with the illness. A physically changed brain means a change in behavior.

But there are medications that can block the effects that this gene causes in the brain, potentially preventing PTSD.

'During the trauma stage, we need to do something for them. We just can not wait,' said Dr. Tang of people going through trauma.

These finds are important because of the devastation PTSD has on the lives, families and behavior of those with it.

More than 20 percent of veterans are sick with PTSD. A quarter of the homeless are veterans. And current medications only help 20 to 30 percent of veterans with PTSD.

The hope is one day a genetic test could identify people at risk and prevent it.

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