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‘An ounce of prevention’: BYU researchers testing ways to treat PTSD before it happens

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PROVO — Researchers at BYU are testing the use of drugs that could help pretreat people at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Neuroscience professor Jeff Edwards conducted a study where rodents received drugs, and then they were put through a traumatic situation to see if the drugs helped the rodents’ stress levels. The results found there is possibility of pretreating people for PTSD before the traumatic memories form.

There are drugs available for people to reduce PTSD by taking a pill promptly after a traumatic experience to soften the strong memories that can form. Edwards’ research explores the potential of blocking those memories from forming before the experience even happens.

“We were really curious about whether some of those drugs used to reverse PTSD could be given to people we know have high risks — such as first responders or people in the military — before they experience stress, to prevent some of the cellular-level brain changes that are damaging in PTSD,” Edwards said.

For the study, the researchers injected rats with propranolol and mifepristone, drugs commonly used to treat PTSD retroactively. The rats then went through traumatic, stress-inducing experiences by being exposed to constant light for two weeks and occasionally having a dominant rat introduced into their environment to scare the rats being tested.

After a week, the rats’ emotions and memory were studied by examining the amygdala and hippocampus. Results were gathered on long-term potentiation, which is a “persistent strengthening of synapses based on recent patterns of activity” in a part of the brain that forms and retrieves some memories, according to the National Library of Medicine. Higher amounts of long-term potentiation equal stronger memories and excessive amounts indicate PTSD-like effects.

Rats undergoing stress that were not pretreated with the drug experienced a 30-40% increase in long-term potentiation, the researchers said.

Rats that were treated with the drug before experiencing stress had the same levels of long-term potentiation as the rats in a control group that didn’t experience any stress.

“The drugs brought the brain back to normal levels, how it should be working in memory formation, eliminating some of those maladaptive memories that create overly strong recall,” Edwards said.

The study also discovered pretreated rats had normal stress receptors after experiencing trauma. The stress receptors of the rats that didn’t receive treatment, however, were 80% less functional after undergoing trauma.

Eric Winzenried worked on the project while an undergrad at BYU. He said this project relates to the saying: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

“Preventative treatment strategies like this are often much more effective,” Winzenried said. “Although our work is very preliminary and in rodents, it is a piece in the puzzle that we hope will lead to better treatments for the prevention of PTSD in high-risk individuals.”

Further testing will need to be completed on rats before any human trials are conducted, a press release from BYU said.

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Cassidy Wixom covers Utah County communities and is the evening breaking news reporter for KSL.com.

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