Pre-deployment risk factors for PTSD in active-duty personnel deployed to Afghanistan: a machine-learning approach for analyzing multivariate predictors

Molecular Psychiatry

Katharina Schultebraucks, Meng Qian, Duna Abu-Amara, Kelsey Dean, Eugene Laska, Carole Siegel, Aarti Gautam, Guia Guffanti, Rasha Hammamieh, Burook Misganaw, Synthia H. Mellon, Owen M. Wolkowitz, Esther M. Blessing, Amit Etkin, Kerry J. Ressler, Francis J. Doyle III, Marti Jett & Charles R. Marmar


Active-duty Army personnel can be exposed to traumatic warzone events and are at increased risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared with the general population. PTSD is associated with high individual and societal costs, but identification of predictive markers to determine deployment readiness and risk mitigation strategies is not well understood. This prospective longitudinal naturalistic cohort study—the Fort Campbell Cohort study—examined the value of using a large multidimensional dataset collected from soldiers prior to deployment to Afghanistan for predicting post-deployment PTSD status. The dataset consisted of polygenic, epigenetic, metabolomic, endocrine, inflammatory and routine clinical lab markers, computerized neurocognitive testing, and symptom self-reports. The analysis was computed on active-duty Army personnel (N = 473) of the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Machine-learning models predicted provisional PTSD diagnosis 90–180 days post deployment (random forest: AUC = 0.78, 95% CI = 0.67–0.89, sensitivity = 0.78, specificity = 0.71; SVM: AUC = 0.88, 95% CI = 0.78–0.98, sensitivity = 0.89, specificity = 0.79) and longitudinal PTSD symptom trajectories identified with latent growth mixture modeling (random forest: AUC = 0.85, 95% CI = 0.75–0.96, sensitivity = 0.88, specificity = 0.69; SVM: AUC = 0.87, 95% CI = 0.79–0.96, sensitivity = 0.80, specificity = 0.85). Among the highest-ranked predictive features were pre-deployment sleep quality, anxiety, depression, sustained attention, and cognitive flexibility. Blood-based biomarkers including metabolites, epigenomic, immune, inflammatory, and liver function markers complemented the most important predictors. The clinical prediction of post-deployment symptom trajectories and provisional PTSD diagnosis based on pre-deployment data achieved high discriminatory power. The predictive models may be used to determine deployment readiness and to determine novel pre-deployment interventions to mitigate the risk for deployment-related PTSD.


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