Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a well-known illness: A traumatizing event happens to someone and they experience trouble sleeping, memory loss and trouble learning new things. But researchers at UVA recently got a grant to explore what they think may be a fix for PTSD.
Dr. William Levy points out the hippocampus in the brain, a potential key to unraveling the mysteries of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’ve been told never to say ‘cure’ in psychiatric medicine,” says Dr. William B. Levy, whose systems neurodynamics lab will perform the studies. But Levy says significant “amelioration of symptoms” could be on the horizon.
So how would it work? Scientists have long observed that the amygdala is the brain structure responsible for fear, and is presumably also responsible for the fear that’s re-experienced by patients with PTSD. But Levy and his researchers think a totally different structure also plays a role in PTSD.
That structure is the hippocampus, which most scientists agree is responsible for encoding memories. In normal functioning, the hippocampus “sends” memories to the neocortex, where they become “declarative,” or explicit memories that people can access and talk about.
A case study brought to Levy’s attention by one of his students showed that people with PTSD weren’t processing their memories this way. Take the case of a woman who had been raped in an alley: She had no explicit memory of ever having been in the alley, but when investigators took her there, she had a strong emotional response.
To Levy, this indicated not only a fear response in the amygdala, but also that the hippocampus had not done its job in producing explicit memories in the neocortex. Why not?
Because part of the hippocampus’ encoding process happens at night, during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep cycles. But, people with PTSD commonly have trouble sleeping and wake up from nightmares, which “would ruin the encoding that the hippocampus was trying to accomplish,” Levy says. “It’s pretty obvious—all these people need is a good night’s sleep.”
Unfortunately, most of the anti-depressants used to treat PTSD are REM-inhibitors, meaning they’ll put a patient out, but the quality of sleep is decreased.
But Levy’s researchers also discovered that a depression drug that’s related to Prozac, nefazodone, was actually offering PTSD patients the REM sleep they were looking for. Levy has been awarded a grant from the National Institute of Health to create a computer program to reproduce sleep and dreaming in a computer model of a brain. Through this, Levy hopes to create a drug for PTSD that’s not just a “happenstance” treatment.
Given the high number of traumatic events occurring, not to mention veterans coming back from the Iraq war, a cure for post-traumatic stress disorder would likely make big waves in the science world.
“When we see we can help, of course we want to help,” Levy says. “It’s clearly our responsibility to make our research relevant.”
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