New PTSD drug may allow vets to reprogram traumatic memories

By David Ferguson
Wednesday, May 22, 2013 11:05 EDT
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[image via DVIDSHUB's Flickr Photostream, Creative Commons licensed]
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Researchers claim to have found a promising new therapy in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the syndrome affecting thousands of U.S. military veterans. According to Wired magazine, the Pentagon has authorized $11 million in funding for trials of the drug D-Cycloserine (DCS), which appears to help wipe away the fear associated with traumatic memories.

The new funding is going to three of the top PTSD research centers in the country: Emory University, the University of Southern California and New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Doctors at the three research hubs will combine exposure therapy, an established treatment for PTSD, with doses of DCS, which is administered just prior to the exposure session, and seems to mitigate the fear and upset attached to violent, traumatic memories.

Dr. Barbara Rothbaum, the leader of the Emory team, told Wired, “We already know that exposure therapy is an effective [therapy] for PTSD, and we want to figure out how to optimize it. I really think that this study will move beyond the theoretical. We can rescue people.”

Exposure therapy works by repeatedly guiding the patient through their traumatic memories in a safe setting. Each time the trama is revisited, the brain “rewrites” the memory. DCS, which was originally used to treat tuberculosis in the 1960s, seems to aid the brain by targeting the areas associated with fear responses. In some patients, the process of damping down the fear associated with traumatic memories happens faster if DCS is taken before therapy.

Unlike antidepressants like Zoloft and Paxil or anti-anxiety medications like Xanax and Klonopin, DCS is not taken every day, but only prior to sessions.

“Most drugs, you dose every day,” said Rothbaum to Wired. “But DCS is only useful during exposure therapy, so you’re taking the drug right before the session. And when your series of sessions end, the medication ends too.”

Other scientists are not as hopeful about DCS. Wired pointed to an article in the Internal Medicine News that said early trials for the drug have not been entirely successful.

New York University department of psychiatry director Dr. Charles Marmar told Internal Medicine News, “The early results are not as positive as we [had] hoped.”

Another researcher, Dr. Roger Pitman of Massachusetts General Hospital said, “We didn’t see much evidence today that d-cycloserine boosts the therapeutic benefit of cognitive-behavioral therapy [CBT] in PTSD.”

The current method of treating PTSD in military veterans consists mainly of a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and anti-depressant medications and is producing little in the way of results. A New York Times article this week said that the level of suicides among armed forces personnel and veterans has spiked sharply in recent years, surging ahead of the rates of death in combat and accidents.

“Over the course of nearly 12 years and two wars, suicide among active-duty troops has risen steadily, hitting a record of 350 in 2012,” said the Times. “That total was twice as many as a decade before and surpassed not only the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan but also the number who died in transportation accidents last year.”

[image via DVIDSHUB's Flickr Photostream, Creative Commons licensed]

David Ferguson
David Ferguson
David Ferguson is an editor at Raw Story. He was previously writer and radio producer in Athens, Georgia, hosting two shows for Georgia Public Broadcasting and blogging at Firedoglake.com and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book.
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