New drug could prevent PTSD

December 7, 2010

About 7.7 million Americans struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which is caused from exposure to a traumatic emotional or physical event. Much is still unknown about PTSD, but it can last a lifetime and is notoriously hard to treat. However, new findings out of Northwestern University might bring us one step closer to stopping the disorder in its tracks.

“These obstacles motivated us to design this experiment and try to intervene,” said Jelena Radulovic, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and Dunbar Scholar at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Radulovic headed a study that has pinpointed where PTSD occurs in the brain and has come up with a way to prevent it from developing in the first place.

Using an animal model, Radulovic’s team replicated the disorder in mice by creating stressful events that triggered chronic “exaggerated fear responses.” When traumatized mice were exposed to the place of initial trauma, they would freeze up 80-90% of the time. When the researchers injected a cocktail of calming drugs into the brains of these mice within five hours of the stressful event, their reactions were more like normal fear responses—they froze up only 50% of the time.The calming drug cocktail prevented PTSD from occurring in traumatized mice.

What does this mean for humans? Radulovic first hopes to test whether these findings are applicable for both genders, different strains of mice and using different types of stressors. Only then can they try to collaborate with clinicians to prevent the occurrence of the disorder.

Dr. Joseph Yount, clinical psychologist and coordinator of the PTSD Clinic at the Jesse Brown Veterans Administration Medical Center, remains skeptical about these findings. Yount uses evidence-based therapies that encourage patients to examine their own thinking. He points out that using these therapies, “we’re not treating trauma, we’re treating post traumatic stress disorder.”

Yount is not opposed to the idea of a medication that could potentially eradicate PTSD, so long as it’s used in conjunction with other options. “If this idea turns out to be really helpful then it will be a great addition to talking therapies and self growth,” he said. “I always have to defend my own experience against someone who wants to sweep that away with a magic pill.”