Pretrauma Cognitive Ability and Risk for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Twin Study

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Abstract

Context

Cognitive deficits are associated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but whether such deficits reflect sequelae or risk factors is not fully resolved.

Objective

To determine, in a representative sample, whether preexposure cognitive ability is associated with risk for PTSD, and whether that risk is genetically mediated.

Design, Setting, and Participants

The co-twin–control study involved 2386 male Vietnam-era twin veterans with a mean (SD) age of 41.9 (2.7) years, a population-based sample of men who were in military service during this era. Cognitive ability scores were obtained just before military induction at a mean (SD) age of 19.7 (1.5) years. Participants included only individuals who were exposed to potentially traumatic events and underwent preexposure cognitive testing.

Main Outcome Measures

Armed Forces Qualification Test (of cognitive ability) percentile scores and PTSD diagnosed by means of structured interviews.

Results

We found a significant dose-response relationship between preexposure cognitive ability and risk for PTSD. After controlling for confounders, the highest cognitive ability quartile had a 48% lower risk than the lowest ability quartile (P<.001). Non–PTSD-concordant pairs had the highest scores; PTSD-concordant pairs had the lowest scores; and PTSD-discordant pairs had intermediate scores. Differences in Armed Forces Qualification Test scores within twin pairs were significant only in PTSD-discordant pairs (P=.04) and were accounted for specifically by the discordant dizygotic pairs (P=.002). Genetic influences on preexposure cognitive ability explained 5% of the variation in PTSD, but 100% of that relationship was explained by common genes.

Conclusions

Preexposure cognitive ability is a risk or a protective factor for PTSD. The variance in PTSD explained by preexposure cognitive ability is accounted for entirely by common genetic factors. Lower cognitive ability may be a marker of less adaptive coping against adverse mental health consequences of exposure to potentially traumatic events. Further study of the potential mechanisms through which cognitive ability confers risk is needed.

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