Treatment and Prevention of PTSD
It’s no secret for anyone who follows me that I am a Marine veteran. It’s also no secret for anyone who follows me that I’ve had my own ups and downs in life because of my experiences. PTSD is a nightmare, one that you can’t quite shake no matter how hard you try. Then again, not everyone reacts the same way to the trauma that typically causes PTSD, not everyone walks away from war with it. The big question that scientists set out to answer was, why? And now they might just have an answer.
Blood expression levels of genes targeted by the stress hormones called glucocorticoids could be a physical measure, or biomarker, of risk for developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD], according to a study conducted in rats by researchers. This new research also makes the steroid hormones’ receptor, the glucocorticoid receptor, a potential target for new drugs.
[Loony Hint: I know when people think steroids they think bodybuilder, a steroid is just a particular chemical structure, for example cholesterol is a steroid. Glucocorticoids include anti inflammatories that have popular use in things like sports where knee injuries are frequent.]
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD] if you do not know, is triggered by a terrifying event. This event can either something horrible being witnessed or an event that is experienced. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. It can not only be debilitating, it can also dramatically increase the risk of suicide. Yet, not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD. This is why the study aimed to identify biomarkers that could better measure each person’s vulnerability to the disorder.
“Our aim was to determine which genes are differentially expressed in relation to PTSD,” said lead investigator Rachel Yehuda, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience. “We found that most of the genes and pathways that are different in PTSD-like animals compared to resilient animals are related to the glucocorticoid receptor, which suggests we might have identified a therapeutic target for treatment of PTSD,” said Dr. Yehuda, who also heads the Mental Health Patient Care Center and PTSD Research Program at the James J. Peters Veterans Affairs Medical Center in the Bronx.
To do this, the research team exposed a group of male and female rats to litter soiled by cat urine, a predatory scent that mimics a life-threatening situation. [You should also know that most PTSD studies until now have used only male rats. The researchers wanted to include female rats in this study since women are more vulnerable than men to developing PTSD]. Next, the rats were then categorized based on their behavior one week after exposure to the scent. The authors also examined patterns of gene expression in the blood and in stress-responsive brain regions.
After one week of being exposed to soiled cat litter for 10 minutes, vulnerable rats exhibited higher anxiety and hyperarousal, and showed altered glucocorticoid receptor signaling in all tissues compared with resilient rats. To further test the hypothesis that glucocorticoid receptors played a role in PTSD, some rats were treated with a hormone that activates the glucocorticoid receptor called corticosterone one hour after exposure to the cat urine scent. Amazingly, these rats showed lower levels of anxiety and arousal one week later compared with untreated, trauma-exposed rats.
“PTSD is not just a disorder that affects the brain,” said co-investigator Nikolaos Daskalakis, MD, PhD, Associate Research Scientist in the Department of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “It involves the entire body, which is why identifying common regulators is key. The glucocorticoid receptor is the one common regulator that consistently stood out.”
Let’s be clear, I am proud of my service. I willingly gave what I could and don’t regret what I lost in the process. I think more people should serve in the military and I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the experiences I had, not all of which were bad. But I think with the anti-war sentiment comes an anti-military sentiment and I don’t like it. While I cannot change your mind, whatever conclusion you have come to about military service, I can advocate for better treatment and prevention of suicide for veterans. Research like this will help future generations of not only veterans, but for disadvantaged or abused children and adults.
Because let’s be honest with each other, no matter how different the life experiences, we are all people and no one should have to suffer like that when we can potentially help treat it.
Nikolaos P. Daskalakis, Hagit Cohen, Guiqing Caia, Joseph D. Buxbaum, & Rachel Yehuda (2014). Expression profiling associates blood and brain glucocorticoid receptor signaling with trauma-related individual differences in both sexes Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111 (32) : 10.1073/pnas.1401660111