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PROVO — BYU researchers are testing the use of medications that could help pretreat people at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Neuroscience professor Jeff Edwards conducted a study in which rodents were given drugs and then subjected to a traumatic situation to see if the drugs helped reduce their stress levels. The results revealed that there is an opportunity to pre-treat people suffering from PTSD before traumatic memories are formed.
There are medications that allow people to reduce PTSD by taking a pill immediately after a traumatic experience to lessen the strong memories that may form. Edwards’ research explores the possibility of preventing these memories from forming before the experience even occurs.
“We were really curious if some of these drugs used to reverse PTSD could be given to people who we know are high risk – like first responders or military members – before they experience stress , in order to prevent part of the brain at the cellular level from changes that are detrimental to PTSD,” Edwards said.
For the study, researchers retroactively injected rats with propranolol and mifepristone, drugs commonly used to treat PTSD. The rats then underwent traumatic and stressful experiences by being exposed to constant light for two weeks and occasionally introducing a dominant rat into their environment to frighten the test rats.
After a week, the rats’ emotions and memory were studied by examining the amygdala and hippocampus. Results have been gathered on long-term potentiation, which is a “persistent strengthening of synapses based on recent activity patterns” in a part of the brain that forms and retrieves certain memories, according to the National Library of Medicine. Higher amounts of long-term potentiation equate to stronger memories and excessive amounts indicate PTSD-like effects.
Stressed rats that were not pretreated with the drug experienced a 30 to 40 percent increase in long-term potentiation, the researchers said.
Rats treated with the drug before experiencing stress showed the same levels of long-term potentiation as rats in a control group that did not experience any stress.
“The medications brought the brain back to normal levels, as it should function in memory formation, eliminating some of those maladaptive memories that create too strong a recall,” Edwards said.
The study also found that pretreated rats had normal stress receptors after experiencing trauma. The stress receptors of rats that did not receive treatment, however, were 80% less functional after suffering trauma.
Eric Winzenried worked on the project while a student at BYU. He said this project was linked to the saying: “Prevention is better than cure.”
“Preventive treatment strategies like this are often much more effective,” Winzenried said. “While our work is very preliminary and in rodents, this is a piece of the puzzle that we hope will lead to better treatments for PTSD prevention in high-risk individuals.”
Additional testing will need to be done on rats before human trials are conducted, a BYU press release states.