Researchers at the University of Texas’ Austin Dell Medical School have found the means of altering how the brain responds less aggressively to traumatic situations marking a huge improvement in the standard exposure therapy used for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The exposure therapy is the most commonly used therapy for patients suffering from PTSD and for reducing anxiety.
Currently, the common PTSD therapy is the gold standard in PTSD treatment. It helps patients gradually deal with traumatic memories and feelings by confronting unpleasant memories in a safe setting without any actual threat.
Electrical shock replaced with neutral tone
For the study, the researchers observed 46 healthy individuals and compared their emotional responses when exposed to fearful circumstances like electrical shocks. They replaced the electric shock on their wrists with a neutral tone rather than turning it off, as would be done in standard exposure therapy. The researchers then measured the activity of the brain by measuring the sweat on the palms of the participants with the help of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
The researchers noticed that when they simply replaced the electric shocks with a neutral tone, as opposed to completely turning off the shocks, the brain recorded a stronger activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex region. This region of the brain is considered to be a significant area for learning safety and deterring fear. When the scientists replaced the electric shock with a neutral tone, they observed that the emotional reactions of the participants to pictures associated with the electric shock were also comparatively much lower, when they were tested the following day.
Lead study author Dr. Joseph Dunsmoor stated that this method of replacing an expected threat with a milder harmless tone evoked a long-lasting memory pertaining to safety in the participants’ brains. This suggested that the brain may be able to control its response to fear with the assistance of a simple non-pharmaceutical intervention.
Brain can be trained to regulate fear
To carry out a comparative analysis, the researchers divided the study participants into two groups. In one group, the electric shock was completely turned off; and in the other group, they replaced the electric shock with a neutral tone. On day one, both the groups were exposed to a picture of a face accompanied with an electric shock on the wrist. The scientists then exposed these groups to a picture of a face accompanied with the shock replaced with a neutral tone or with the shock turned off completely.
Both these groups were made to return the following day and their brain activity and emotional responses to the fear-conditioned pictures were measured using fMRI scans. The researchers also measured the emotional responses of the participants on being exposed to the threat of receiving an electric shock, by observing the amount of sweating that took place on the palms of the participants. Dunsmoor said that this study suggested that by simply replacing expected threatening situations with neutral events, the brain could be trained to regulate fear effectively.
Seeking treatment for PTSD
An untreated mental disorder like PTSD can be overwhelming, however, it can be managed with the help of timely professional intervention. An effective treatment program for post-traumatic stress disorder comprises of a healthy combination of expressive and experiential treatments, customized to suit individual treatment requirements of patients.
If you or a loved one is battling PTSD or any other mental health disorder, reach out to the Texas Mental Health Recovery Helpline. We can facilitate your admission to advanced treatment programs for various mental health disorders, including PTSD. Call our 24/7 helpline 866-596-4708 for more information about post-traumatic stress disorder treatment in Texas. You can also chat online with a representative from the admissions team for further assistance.