Closing In On New Post-Traumatic Stress Diagnoses and Treatments

Scientists have made a potential breakthrough in post-traumatic stress (PTS) which may transform how we treat PTS in the future and could even lead to developing methods to prevent it. At the same time, another study is successfully mapping the early development of PTS, which may also impact treatment as well as how we understand it.

In the first study, led by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) at the University of Toronto, a protein complex was identified that is elevated in people suffering the effects of PTS. A protein complex is a collection of proteins which have an essential role in regulatory processes, cellular function, and signaling cascades. In addition, there is a peptide, which is a short chain of amino acids that carry out important biological functions, and can play key roles in controlling and regulating other molecules’ activities. The peptide that researchers identified showed in early tests to prevent the recall or encoding of fear memories. If this research proves to be accurate, the research team may be able to use that peptide to either treat the symptoms of PTS, or even prevent them entirely.

So far, researchers believe that the protein complex normally increases after situations involving severe stress, but typically returns to regular levels soon after. The same can’t be said for those who go on to develop PTS. In those cases, this protein complex remains increased. The researchers believe that this could be an indicator of PTS in blood tests, and could also be targeted through pharmacological treatments. If this research proves to be true, this has the potential to completely transform diagnosing and treating PTS.

The second study examines PTS in the moments that preface the first study. This study, conducted at the University of Vermont, is examining data from trauma victims in their first 30 days following a traumatic event. It’s the first study of it’s kind to gather such extensive data from trauma victims during the time period. However working with recent trauma victims creates complications. In the first 30 days after a traumatic event, trauma victims are not restricted to a hospital and often aren’t willing to be interviewed at length about the events. Therefore researchers for this study implemented a different method to to collect their data: they utilized text messaging to ask their questions which could then be replied to when it was convenient for patients. Researchers developed a set of questions for each day that helped them to monitor the development of the hallmark symptoms of PTS during this critical period of time.

What this study yielded, were two different tracks in which symptoms developed. One of the series of symptoms resemble fear conditioning, a behavioral paradigm which essentially causes people/animals to learn to avoid something based on its association with a previous negative event. In this case, the fear conditioning-esque sequence manifested in victims having negative thoughts surrounding the traumatic event. As a result of the negative thoughts, they steered away from actions that could remind them of the trauma. That avoidance then led to hypervigilance. The other track, revolving around feelings of depression, appeared to not exist dependent on the fear conditioning sequence. Depression was observed to exist on its own and self-perpetuate. This is a significant contrast from the tight integration of fear conditioning and depression that is typically associated with PTS. Discovering this discrepancy leads to the potential for approaching treatment differently than was previously thought.

Part of what makes this treatment approach different is that currently, there’s a wait-and-see aspect to addressing PTS. Researchers in this study hope that this would help lead to earlier intervention which could stave off the full development of PTS. Treatments in this regard could focus on exposure therapy which would focus on the fear cognition track of symptoms. For the depression track, a cognitive-based approach could address those symptoms.

While the research isn’t completely conclusive just yet, researchers suggest that the people who are more likely to develop PTS are those who seem to be more reactive to reminders of trauma shortly after the traumatic event occurs. And while these breakthroughs are significant, as one researcher put it, “There is much more work to do.” 



Posted on January 20 2020 in Blog

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