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New drug holds promise for post-traumatic stress disorder

Tragic events become deeply imbedded in a portion of the brain known as the limbic system
Tragic events become deeply imbedded in a portion of the brain known as the limbic system
Robin Wulffson, M.D.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is suffered by many service members returning from the battlefield. It also occurs in civilian life by anyone involved in a tragic event such as a home break-in, carjacking, natural disaster, or terrorist attack. Tragic events become deeply imbedded in a portion of the brain known as the limbic system. These memories remain vivid for a long period because they are involved in survival; they increase the chance of an appropriate response if a similar event occurs in the future. Traumatic experiences cause the individual to feel intense fear, horror, or helplessness. The survivor is unable to get the event out of his or her mind. PTSD can affect many aspects of a person’s life, particularly day-to-day functioning, quality of life, and relationships. A new study has found that a new drug holds promise for helping individuals with PTSD recover from the disorder. The study results were published on January 16 in the journal Cell by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Medical School, and Washington University School of Medicine.

The study authors note that effective strategies to diminish long-term traumatic memories are scarce. The most effective treatments to reduce the impact of traumatic events employ memory updating mechanisms that occur during memory recall. The team of neuroscientists evaluated the effects of a drug known as an HDAC2 inhibitor. When used in rats, the drug appeared to help the rodents overcome traumatic memories. The researchers are of the opinion that, in the near future, an HDAC2 inhibitor could help treat individuals with PTSD, particularly those for whom psychotherapy is not effective. However, they caution that the older the memory, the more difficult it was to overcome, even with the help of the drug.

Three main symptom clusters characterize PTSD:

  • The person will re-experience the event through distressing images, unwanted memories, nightmares, or flashbacks. These re-experiences will cause distress and such physical symptoms as heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and other signs of panic.
  • The person will avoid reminders of the event, including people, places, or things associated with the trauma, and become emotionally numb, constricted, or generally detached from or unresponsive to surrounding activities and people.
  • The person will experience physical symptoms reflecting a state of anxiety or hyperarousal. These symptoms may include insomnia, irritability, impaired concentration, hypervigilance, and increased startle responses.
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