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USF researchers closer to finding a cure for PTSD

Under the direction of one USF professor, a few graduate students are looking for a cure for post-traumatic stress disorder.

David Diamond, director of the Center for Preclinical and Clinical Research on Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and a professor of psychology, molecular pharmacology and physiology at USF, has been studying how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) works in the brain.

PTSD develops after someone witnesses or survives a life-threatening experience, such as a car crash, rape or hostage situation.

More than 7 million Americans have lost a sense of personal security or experience violent flashbacks to a day when their lives were threatened, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Some USF experts said there’s no standard treatment for PTSD, so they want to look at current treatments and figure out which ones work best.

Diamond said physicians are only able to treat some of the symptoms associated with the disorder by, for instance, prescribing antidepressants or medications for anxiety.

People with PTSD may also go through psychotherapy, in which a person is asked to relive his or her traumatic event by talking about it or revisiting the scene of the event.

“The big problem is that post-traumatic stress disorder has so many symptoms it’s hard to find a drug that can treat all the symptoms without side effects,” Diamond said.

So, Diamond and other researchers are analyzing what happens in the brain of those with PTSD and what medications and treatments could eventually cure it.

The research is conducted on laboratory rats that exhibit symptoms of PTSD. The rats are scared by being placed near a cat.

Diamond said the experiment helps model what humans experience in real-life traumatic moments, as the rats develop PTSD like a soldier in combat.

“When people go off to war they develop a lot of emotional trauma without having any physical scars,” Diamond said. “So, we don’t physically harm the rats, we just make them afraid and we find they produce the same physiological response that people get when they are afraid.”

Jessi Menzel — a graduate psychology student who’s done extensive studies on PTSD — said that to be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must experience symptoms for at least a month and the symptoms must significantly interfere with his or her daily functioning.

Graduate psychology student Phillip Zoladz developed the study on PTSD in 2005 and has been working under Diamond since 2004.

Zoladz said glucocorticoids are hormones the body releases when stressed. In the human body, cortisol — a type of glucocorticoid — is the hormone that helps return the body to a normal state after being stressed.

People with PTSD, however, have lower levels of cortisol and are unable to respond to stress efficiently, he said.

Zoladz said the rats in the lab also exhibited lower glucocorticoid levels, and that he has subsequently tested different agents for their ability to reduce the rats’ PTSD symptoms.

“What I found was, compared to other agents, Tianeptine was the only drug that blocked all the stress-induced changes in rat physiology and behavior,” he said.

In rats with increased anxiety, heart rate and blood pressure, Tianeptine blocked all the anxiety responses and helped return the rat to normal.

Zoladz said that Tianeptine is only available by prescription in Europe. He also said that some preclincial studies have shown Tianeptine to be effective in preventing neurons in the brain from withering away because of chronic stress.

Zoladz said he plans to continue to look into Tianeptine and research what it is in the brain that causes PTSD. He said understanding the changes people with PTSD go through could lead to a cure.

A key problem in treating PTSD is that of all the medications available, none treat every symptom of the disorder, Zoladz said. Tianeptine, however, could be the solution. Zoladz and his colleagues are also researching whether the drug could stop the deterioration of the brain brought on by PTSD.

“The purpose of the research is to basically help offer better treatment for people because right now there is nothing out there that effectively treats all the symptoms of PTSD,” Zoladz said. “I know that’s kind of a cliche answer, but we are getting to the stage where we could actually have an effect on treating people better.”

Diamond plans on presenting this study Friday at the 2008 Philip Hauge Abelson Advancing Science Seminar at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.