Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Research Used to Understand PTSD Better

November 7, 2018


The University of Texas Dallas is beginning research on treating the complicated disorder of PTSD after receiving a $7.4 million grant from the Department of Defense. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs after life-altering events like sexual or physical abuse, serious accidents, or serving in the military. It is the most common mental health disorder of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The condition has proved difficult to treat in veterans and civilians alike. The study is incorporating Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to block the fear signal triggering the symptoms, alongside cognitive therapy.

Defining PTSD

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder occurs after (post) you or someone close to you experiences a traumatic or life threatening event. Symptoms can begin months after the event, that are disabling enough to interfere with your daily life.

Symptoms include:

  • Flashbacks- Individuals will experience flashbacks or re-experience the traumatic event after triggers, feeling as they though they are back at the event, feeling all of the original fear of it.
  • Nightmares- Sleep disorders often become a issue for individuals with PTSD because they will have frequent intense nightmares about the event, causing serious sleep disruption
  • Avoidance- Individuals with PTSD will develop a range of phobias stemming from the desire to avoid triggers, such as agoraphobia, and fear of large groups or crowds.
  • Hyperarousal- The consequence of heightened anxiety and altered arousal response, hyperarousal can present as irritability, and angry outbursts, feeling constantly onguard and ready to act if threatened, and being easily startled.
The Brain Structures involved in dealing with fear and stress, areas affected in those with PTSD.

Clinical Study Focus

The projects lead, Dr John Hart Jr explains the use of rTMS in the study, 

“Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, called RTMS, is something we've been working with for years. It's a figure-8 coil, encased in plastic, and you just hold it outside someone's head. It's a magnet. When you alternate north and south poles on the magnet, you generate a low-level, low-field electrical current. And what we found in doing our research is that if you do that on the right side of the frontal lobe of your head or on the right side of the forehead, the magnet will block that fear signal and have you not over-respond to a traumatic memory. We actually did this first in PTSD patients.”

In addition to rTMS, the study will also employ Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) to teach strategies on how to deal the traumatic memory to prevent it from overwhelming the individuals with fear. They have already found that pairing rTMS with therapy significantly speeds up the healing process. When coupling cognitive therapy with rTMS patients felt better longer and even saw greater improvement than individuals only receive therapy who often relapsed after time.

Two UT Dallas graduate students demonstrate the usage of the equipment for repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation.
“As in our prior study, we’ll be doing imaging to look at markers of change and to learn more about how PTSD works, the mechanisms behind it, and how it gets better,” Hart said.

Participants will at 6 and 12 month marks, analyzing PTSD symptoms and brain imaging. They will receive one of three treatment plans- rTMS followed by CPT, CPT only, and rTMS only.

The goal is to give improve patients quality of life so that PTSD doesn’t impact their work, home or social life. Hart believes this study is a great example of translational research — fundamental research that is “translated” into medical practice and yields meaningful health outcomes.

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