Considering that post-traumatic stress disorder has only been recognized as a mental health disorder since the 1980s, it is not that surprising that it has seen relatively few studies in the past. However, a recent study utilizing brain scanning has found a link between certain opioid receptors and symptoms of trauma such as sadness and emotional detachment. The study, carried out by researchers from the New York University Langone Medical Center, sought evidence for the theory that a particular set of symptoms is linked to certain neural structures in the brain, helping them develop a better understanding of the most optimal medications to use for each individual case.
The researchers compared brain maps from healthy people with those from diagnosed trauma victims with PTSD, general anxiety disorder or depression. The participants were given a radioactive tracer that binds to kappa opioid receptors in the brain, lighting up when viewed under positron emission tomography (PET). The scans confirmed that chronic exposure to stress that victims of trauma and PTSD are subjected to cause kappa receptors to retract back inside their cell bodies, resulting in dysphoria, a condition marked by detachment, hopelessness and emotional discomfort. The lack of active kappa receptors in certain regions of the brain were believed to be responsible for more intense feelings of dysphoria, but not anxiety.
“Our study points toward a more personalized treatment approach for people with a specific symptom profile that’s been linked to a particular neurobiological abnormality. Understanding more about where and how symptoms of PTSD manifest in the brain is a critical part of research efforts to develop more effective medications and treatment modalities,” said lead author Alexander Neumeister, M.D.
The study also confirmed the efficacy of antidepressants in the treatment of anxiety and PTSD symptoms, paving the way for better personalization of medications for each specific case in the future.
Alternative PTSD medications
Another similar study using magnetic functional imaging (fMRI) examined the brain while in a euphoric state produced by MDMA, or ecstasy. Published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, the study focused on 25 volunteers, scanning their brains once after taking the drug and again after taking a placebo. While inside the fMRI scanner, the participants were asked to recall their best and worst life memories, rating the positive ones as more vivid, positive and emotionally intense with MDMA than with the placebo; conversely, they also rated their worst memories less negatively while on the drug.
The researchers found that certain regions of the volunteers’ brains were activated more or less with MDMA, such as decreased activity in the limbic system (a set of structures involved in emotional regulation) and reduced communication between the medial temporal lobe and medial prefrontal cortex (also involved in emotional control) due to less blood flow to the area. This reduction in activity in the limbic system is the opposite of the overactivity that is characteristic of anxiety disorders.
Some regions of the brain exhibited increased communication between the amygdala and the hippocampus (regions that are also part of the limbic system, responsible for memory and emotional reactions), the opposite of what is seen in the brain of patients with PTSD.
The researchers suggest that MDMA has the ability to reduce the potency of painful memories, helping victims of trauma and PTSD patients revisit their traumatic experiences (with the help of psychotherapy) in a more productive manner that is less inhibited by negative emotions. Although very few studies have been conducted on PTSD since it was listed as a scheduled substance with no government funded research, some privately funded ones have investigated its use as a compliment to psychotherapy, finding positive preliminary results.
The healthcare professionals of Sovereign Health Group have extensive experience in the treatment of victims of trauma and abuse, offering a specialized trauma track for women in Chandler, Arizona. If you would like to learn more about cutting edge treatments for PTSD and victims of trauma, feel free to browse the rest of our site or contact us at (866) 819-0427.
Written by Chase Beckwith, Sovereign Health Group writer
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