November 4, 2008, Updated September 13, 2012

A faint waft of men’s cologne in a shopping mall. The smell of a neighbor’s barbecue. A flash of a face on TV: small unexpected sensory cues can trigger extreme reactions in people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), about one quarter of all people who have lived through a traumatic event like rape, assault, war or terror attack.

New research by Israeli scientists from Ben Gurion University and Tel Aviv University, suggests that a large dose of a stress hormone may reduce the risk of PTSD, and its associated symptoms. The researchers, who report successful results in an animal model, are hoping this therapy could one day restore life to people who have experienced trauma.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is widely known to affect soldiers at war. But it can strike anyone who has suffered through a terrifying ordeal where life is at stake. According to the National Institute of Mental Health in the US, people with PTSD have persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal and feel emotionally numb, especially with people they were once close to.

“This breaks people’s lives up,” says Dr. Mike Matar, a psychiatrist affiliated with Ben Gurion University’s Anxiety and Stress Research Unit, who participated in the study. People with PTSD “do less and less and less. Basically they are unable to put their lives back together,” he tells ISRAEL21c.

Prevention method needed

Post-traumatic stress, Matar adds, is a major health cost in the US, and is a “hugely problematic disorder that destroys people lives.” People, he explains, are supposed to respond to stress in proportion to the event. But in PTSD something goes wrong.

A high dose shot of corticosterone may prevent a high percentage of people, about one in four, from suffering from PTSD. The Israeli researchers reported their findings in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

Known as “the stress hormone,” cortisol is secreted in high levels during a “fight or flight” reaction to stress, and it is this hormone that causes stress-related changes in the body.

Using mice, the researchers took a control group and a group of mice presented with a stress stimulus: litter soaked in cat urine. In about 25 percent of the cases, those presented with the cat urine litter exhibited symptoms of extreme stress, such as an increased startle response and behavioral freezing when exposed to reminders of the stress.

One shot could stop PTSD

The researchers found that those mice that were given high doses of a cortisol-related substance, corticosterone, immediately after exposure to a stressor could be spared from the negative consequences of the stress.

According to Dr. Hagit Cohen of the Anxiety and Stress Research Unit, Ben Gurion University, “Single high-dose corticosteroid treatment may thus be worthy of clinical investigation as a possible avenue for early pharmaco-therapeutic intervention in the acute phase, aimed at prevention of chronic stress-related disorders, such as PTSD.”

The animal model developed by the Israeli researchers is also innovative, and is being adopted by a number of centers in the US, and internationally, to help investigators classify the animal’s degree of response to negative stimuli.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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