Oxytocin, a hormone that promotes emotional bonding, also benefits people having trouble dealing with stress. A new study suggests that giving oxytocin for a week shortly following a traumatic experience reduces the risk that the recipient will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In the study by researcher Mirjam van Zuiden and colleagues, people who visited an emergency room following some kind of trauma were randomized to receive either a placebo nasal spray or intranasal oxytocin twice daily for 7.5 days beginning within 12 days after the trauma. The dosage was 40 IU twice daily.
For those participants with severe PTSD symptoms at baseline, repeated oxytocin administration prevented worsening PTSD. The research was presented at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry.
A recent study clarified how cognitive behavioral therapy improves symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The participants were 62 adult women. One group had depression, one had PTSD, and the third was made up of healthy volunteers. None were taking medication at the time of the study. The researchers, led by Yvette Shelive, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to analyze participants’ amygdala connectivity.
At the start of the study, participants with depression or PTSD showed diminished connectivity between the amygdala and brain areas related to cognitive control, the process by which the brain can vary behavior and how it processes information in the moment based on current goals. The lack of connectivity reflected the severity of the participants’ depression. Twelve weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy improved mood and connectivity between the amygdala and these control regions, including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the inferior frontal cortex. These regions also allow for executive functioning, which includes planning, implementation, and focus.
Stress is a risk factor for depression and other mental health disorders. Researchers are currently working to clarify how stress leads to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and why trauma early in life has lasting consequences.
Two recent studies in mice examined whether just witnessing a stressful event leads to depression-like behaviors. In one, adult female mice watched a male mouse as it was repeatedly attacked by a larger mouse. After ten days of this, the female mice were socially withdrawn, had lost interest in drinking sucrose, and gave up more easily during a physical challenge. They also lost weight and showed higher levels of the stress hormone corticosterone in their blood. The researchers, led by Sergio Iniguez, believe their study clarifies how witnessing traumatic events can lead to stress-induced mood disorders.
In the other study, by Carlos Bolanos-Guzman, adolescent male mice witnessed another mouse being attacked. Both the mice that went through the physical stress of being attacked and the mice that went through the emotional stress of watching the attacks occur showed similar depressive behaviors to the mice in the previous study—social withdrawal, loss of interest in sucrose, decreased food intake and exploration of the environment, and decreased motivation in physical challenges. These behaviors persisted into adulthood. Both groups of mice also had increased levels of corticosterone and reduced expression of a particular protein in the ventral tegmental area, a part of the brain linked to stress response. Bolanos-Guzman suggests that both physical and emotional stress have lifelong consequences in mice.
The studies were presented at a scientific meeting in December.
People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often experience fearful memories of the trauma they witnessed. Researchers are working to determine the neurobiological basis for these persistent fear memories in order to better treat PTSD. Current treatments mainly target the central nervous system. Because many people with PTSD have elevated levels of pro-inflammatory immune molecules in their blood, there has been a recent push to determine whether targeting that inflammation may be another way of treating PTSD.
A recent study by researchers Matthew Young and Leonard Howell used an animal model to learn more about the link between trauma, inflammation, and fear memories. The researchers exposed mice to a trauma that produced both a persistent fear response and an increase in inflammatory molecules in the blood. Some of the mice were also given antibodies to neutralize the inflammatory immune response. When the mice were exposed to a cue meant to remind them of the trauma, levels of the inflammatory molecule IL-6 spiked again. When the mice were given antibodies to neutralize IL-6 just before being exposed to the cue, they produced less of a fear reaction.
The researchers, who presented their work at a scientific meeting in December, concluded that traumatic experiences produce not only persistent fearful memories, but also an immune reaction. They believe that the spike in IL-6 following trauma plays a role in the persistence of those memories, and that elevated IL-6 in the blood may explain symptoms of PTSD and other disorders that involve fear learning (such as phobias).
The hormone oxytocin, best known for creating feelings of love and bonding, may help treat post-traumatic stress disorder, since it also reduces anxiety. A study by Saskia B.J. Koch and colleagues that will soon be published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology reports that a single intranasal administration of oxytocin (at a dose of 40 IU) reduced anxiety and nervousness more than did placebo among police officers with PTSD.
Oxytocin also improved abnormalities in connectivity of the amygdala. Male participants with PTSD showed reduced connectivity between the right centromedial amygdala and the left ventromedial prefrontal cortex compared to other male participants who had also experienced trauma but did not have PTSD. This deficit was corrected in the men with PTSD after they received a dose of oxytocin. Female participants with PTSD showed greater connectivity between the right basolateral amygdala and the bilateral dorsal anterior cingulate cortex than female participants who had experienced trauma but did not have PTSD. This was also restored to normal following a dose of oxytocin.
These findings suggest that oxytocin can not only reduce subjective feelings of anxiety in people with PTSD, but may also normalize the way fear is expressed in the amygdala.
A 2015 study by Samuel T. Wilkinson and colleagues in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry reports that among war veterans who completed a special treatment program for post-traumatic stress disorder, those who continued or began using marijuana after treatment had more severe PTSD symptoms, were more violent, and used drugs and alcohol more often. Those who stopped using marijuana or never used it had the lowest levels of PTSD symptoms in the study.
Editor’s Note: Scientific information about marijuana is almost never reported in the media. Evidence of the adverse effects of heavy marijuana use are robust and consistent.
Some of these include:
- A doubling of the risk of psychosis compared to non-users. People with a common variation in the enzyme COMT, which metabolizes dopamine, have an even higher rate of psychosis.
- An increased risk of bipolar disorder onset.
- A worse course of bipolar disorder.
- An increased risk of schizophrenia.
- Memory deficits that remain even after marijuana use has ceased.
- Loss of motivation (exactly what someone with depression doesn’t need).
- Anatomical changes in brain structures.
- A worse course of PTSD and increased violence in those with PTSD.
Bottom line: Those who say marijuana is benign may be ill-informed. People with mood disorders, proneness to paranoia, or PTSD should stay away from marijuana.
Researcher Albert Sattin has had extensive experience treating veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs medical system. He believes that what is known as “treatment resistance” is really under-treatment, and he described his recommended regimen for thorough treatment of PTSD to this editor (Robert M. Post) at the 2015 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry in May.
One of the key elements in the regimens he prescribes for patients with PTSD is prazosin, an alpha-1 antagonist drug used to treat hypertension. Extensive placebo-controlled data by another researcher, Murray Raskind, and colleagues supports the use of prazosin in PTSD. It is typically used to prevent nightmares, but Raskind, Sattin, and others find it has a broad range of positive effects in most domains of PTSD.
Sattin’s key insight is that prazosin should be administered three times a day because of its short half-life. This allows for the treatment of daytime as well as sleep-related PTSD symptoms. Sattin has patients choose from three schedules: 6am, 2pm, 10pm; 7am, 3pm, 11pm; or 8am, 4pm, 12am. Prazosin comes in 1mg, 2mg, and 5mg tablets, but patients must begin by taking the 1mg doses to reduce the risk of orthostatic hypotension (low blood pressure upon standing up), slowly increasing the dose as tolerated and if needed for symptom improvement.
Raskind reported in a poster at the same meeting that in a study of active duty combat soldiers, elevated blood pressure at baseline predicted that a patient would respond well to prazosin, so for patients with elevated blood pressure, Sattin starts with prazosin.
For other patients, Sattin begins by prescribing one of the two selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) approved by the Federal Drug Administration for use in PTSD—sertraline (Zoloft) or paroxetine (Paxil)—and then adds the antidepressant mirtazapine (Remeron) if necessary. If the patient still remains symptomatic, Sattin then adds prazosin to the regimen with the added warning to take time sitting up or standing up to avoid potential dizziness from low blood pressure. Read more
Prazosin, an alpha-1 adrenoreceptor antagonist, has been found to be effective at reducing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including nightmares. Researchers led by Murray Raskind hypothesized that there may be a link between blood pressure and response to prazosin, since resting blood pressure can be used to measure alpha-1 adrenoreceptor responsiveness. In a study of active duty combat soldiers with PTSD, higher resting blood pressure and smaller drop in blood pressure when going from lying down to standing up predicted a better response to prazosin.
The researchers believe that blood pressure can be used to estimate the central nervous systems’s responsiveness to norepinephrine, which prazosin blocks. In patients with PTSD who received placebo instead of prazosin, blood pressure did not predict improvement. Raskind and colleagues hope to be better able to predict response to prazosin in PTSD by measuring patients’ baseline blood pressure.
In an earlier BNN we mistakenly attributed the protocol developed by David Bakish, a renowned Canadian psychopharmacologist, to another doctor named Vaishali P. Bakshi. Our apologies to both individuals.
Dr. David Bakish is Medical Director at the Ottawa Psychopharmacology Clinic and a Former Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa, Ontario. He shared with this editor his novel treatment strategy for patients with exceptionally profound degrees of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which, particularly among military veterans, can be compounded by traumatic brain injury. He has had a distinguished academic career with an extensive CV and credentials including membership in the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology (CINP), the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, and the Canadian and European Colleges of Neuropsychopharmacology. Most importantly he has had great success in treating large numbers of patients with severe PTSD. Treatment options based on placebo-controlled clinical trials are sometimes insufficient for the treatment of seriously ill patients. FDA-approved treatment for PTSD consists of serotonin-selective antidepressants, while exposure therapies (in which the patient is gradually exposed to more of the stimuli that triggered symptoms) are the recommended psychotherapy, but these methods often leave patients highly disabled. We relay Dr. Bakish’s treatment strategy with several caveats.
Most of Bakish’s suggestions are “off-label” treatments for the treatment of PTSD or traumatic brain injury, i.e. treatments that are not FDA-approved for these purposes. In some of these instances, there is no controlled research to support the use of these drugs in patients with PTSD. Thus the ideas noted here are anecdotal, based on his personal experience, and have not been tested in controlled clinical trials. Accordingly, patients with their physicians must make their own decisions about any of the strategies reported in this or other issues of the BNN.
Bakish’s typical treatment algorithm goes well beyond the usual treatment guidelines to find solutions for hard-to-treat patients. Bakish first addresses sleep disturbance, which is almost universal in PTSD. He suggests the anticonvulsant levetiracetam (Keppra), for the hyperarousal and sleep disorder. He uses starting at doses of 125mg per night and increases by 125mg every three weeks. Read more
Researcher Murray Raskind has conducted a series of controlled studies, all with the same conclusion—the alpha-1 antagonist prazosin, used to treat high blood pressure, works for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), especially in preventing nightmares. In his latest study, 67 soldiers were randomly assigned to either prazosin or placebo for 15 weeks. Doses were slowly titrated (to avoid low blood pressure and dizziness) to a possible maximum dose of 5mg at midmorning and 20mg at bedtime for men and 2mg at midmorning and 10mg at bedtime for women over a period of 6 weeks, based on whether the patients continued to experience nightmares.
Raskind found that prazosin was effective for trauma nightmares, sleep quality, global functioning, total score on a scale of PTSD symptoms, and hyperarousal. Side effects were minimal. Raskin concluded that prazosin “is effective for combat-related PTSD with trauma nightmares in active-duty soldiers, and benefits are clinically meaningful.”