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Common drug, given promptly, reduces incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, small study finds

A common drug administered in the first hours following trauma to patients deemed to be at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) reduced the occurrence of PTSD, according to a study led by researchers at the University of Lille, France.

While the study involved a small number of subjects, its results are encouraging, says its senior author, Charles Marmar, MD, associate chief of staff for mental health at the San Francisco VA Medical Center and professor and vice chair of psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco.

"The study is based on the new theory that PTSD is most likely to occur in patients who experience a particularly severe and prolonged response to trauma. If this model proves accurate after five or ten replications of studies like this one, it could have very profound ramifications. From a public health perspective, if you could identify the subgroup of people who are susceptible to PTSD, giving them this course of medication -- which is brief, very well tolerated and inexpensive -- could be very effective prevention [following major trauma] and may have great social relevance." The study appears in the November 1 issue of Biological Psychiatry.

All people confronted by a life-threatening situation, such as a car accident or physical assault, react by releasing a rush of stress hormones, including adrenalin and noradrenalin, which are produced in the adrenal glands, located atop the kidneys. This response, known as "adrenergic activation," initiates the reactions that quicken the heart rate, constrict the vasculature to prevent bleeding to death, and provide energy to the muscles, priming the body to "fight, flee, or freeze." The hormonal flood also strengthens the brain's ability to form and retain emotional memories. The longer the duration of the adrenergic activation, the more vivid and tenacious are the memories of the event. In most people, after minutes to hours the reaction begins to subside.
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Contact: Liese Greensfelder
lgreensfelder@pubaff.ucsf.edu
415-476-8429
University of California - San Francisco
22-Oct-2003


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