Thousands of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will likely emerge from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Many cases will last a few months, but severely traumatized witnesses could suffer for the rest of their lives. How can a single horrific experience with nasty aftershocks sear the psyche for decades? Answers to this question appear increasingly urgent in an atmosphere of war, anthrax scares, and continual television replays of the World Trade Center collapse.

Researchers have linked PTSD to changes in the brain and body. But association is not causation, and biologists hotly contest the significance of these changes. Inconsistent findings fuel the debate, and the ethical limitations of psychiatric research, combined with a lack of animal models, might make some issues impossible to resolve. The stakes in these scientific disputes are high: greater consensus could channel resources into better prevention and treatment strategies.

"When a field has a lot...

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