Current Psychiatry Reports

, 19:10 | Cite as

The Need to Take a Staging Approach to the Biological Mechanisms of PTSD and its Treatment

  • Alexander Cowell McFarlaneEmail author
  • Eleanor Lawrence-Wood
  • Miranda Van Hooff
  • Gin S. Malhi
  • Rachel Yehuda
Disaster Psychiatry: Trauma, PTSD, and Related Disorders (E Foa and A Asnaani, Section Editors)
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Topical Collection on Disaster Psychiatry: Trauma, PTSD, and Related Disorders


Despite the substantial body of neurobiological research, no specific drug target has been developed to treat PTSD and there are substantial limitations with the available interventions. We propose that advances are likely to depend on the development of better classification of the heterogeneity of PTSD using a staging approach of disease. A primary rationale for staging is to highlight the probability that distinct therapeutic approaches need to be utilised according to the degree of biological progression of the disorder. Prospective studies, particularly of military populations, provide substantial evidence about the emerging biological abnormalities that precede the full-blown disorder. These need to be targeted with tailored interventions to prevent disease progression. Equally, the neurobiology of chronic unremitting PTSD needs to be differentiated from the acute disorder which emerges across a spectrum of severity, and this range of presentations correspondingly needs to be addressed with differing therapeutic strategies. The staging approach also needs to take account of the range of somatic pathological outcomes that are being identified as a consequence of traumatic stress exposure. PTSD should be conceptualised as a systemic disorder underpinned a range of biological dysregulation, including metabolic and altered immune function, reflected in the increased rates of cardiovascular and autoimmune disease. The effectiveness of novel treatments needs to be judged across their effectiveness in addressing the spectrum of trauma-related pathology.


PTSD Staging Subsyndromal Neurobiology Inflammation Medical comorbidity Duration of illness Longitudinal course Delayed onset Treatment 



The editors would like to thank Dr. Betty Pfefferbaum for taking the time to review this manuscript.

Compliance with Ethics Guidelines

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent

This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by any of the authors.

Funding Source

This research was funded by program grant number 568970 of the National Health Medical and Research Council of Australia.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alexander Cowell McFarlane
    • 1
    Email author
  • Eleanor Lawrence-Wood
    • 1
  • Miranda Van Hooff
    • 1
  • Gin S. Malhi
    • 2
  • Rachel Yehuda
    • 3
  1. 1.Centre for Traumatic Stress StudiesThe University of AdelaideAdelaideSouth Australia
  2. 2.Department of Psychiatry, Sydney Medical SchoolThe University of SydneyNew South WalesAustralia
  3. 3.Traumatic Stress Studies DivisionMount Sinai School of Medicine, James J Peters VA Medical CenterBronxUSA

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