To date, studies of biological risk factors have revealed inconsistent relationships with subsequent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The inconsistent signal may reflect the use of data analytic tools that are ill equipped for modeling the complex interactions between biological and environmental factors that underlay post-traumatic psychopathology. Further, using symptom-based diagnostic status as the group outcome overlooks the inherent heterogeneity of PTSD, potentially contributing to failures to replicate. To examine the potential yield of novel analytic tools, we reanalyzed data from a large longitudinal study of individuals identified following trauma in the general emergency room (ER) that failed to find a linear association between cortisol response to traumatic events and subsequent PTSD. First, latent growth mixture modeling empirically identified trajectories of post-traumatic symptoms, which then were used as the study outcome. Next, support vector machines with feature selection identified sets of features with stable predictive accuracy and built robust classifiers of trajectory membership (area under the receiver operator characteristic curve (AUC) = 0.82 (95% confidence interval (CI) = 0.80-0.85)) that combined clinical, neuroendocrine, psychophysiological and demographic information. Finally, graph induction algorithms revealed a unique path from childhood trauma via lower cortisol during ER admission, to non-remitting PTSD. Traditional general linear modeling methods then confirmed the newly revealed association, thereby delineating a specific target population for early endocrine interventions. Advanced computational approaches offer innovative ways for uncovering clinically significant, non-shared biological signals in heterogeneous samples.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
The study was supported by PHS Research grant no. MH 50379 to Dr Shalev and an NIMH K01MH102415 to Dr Galatzer-Levy.