Scientists working with the Israel Defense Forces are researching a new treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder - an anxiety disorder that affects some soldiers after their experiences on the battlefield.
The research aims to develop a method to help individuals control the response in certain parts of the brain that are believed to be affected by trauma. The treatment could be applied in advance, in order to reduce the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder developing.
The research is being conducted on several dozen healthy subjects using software that enables the researchers to give their subjects feedback in real time on their brains' response to a range of sound stimuli of various intensities. Prof. Talma Hendler of Tel Aviv University and the Functional Brain Center at Ichilov Hospital, Tel Aviv, said this "neurofeedback" method is aimed at teaching the subjects how to gradually change their brain's reaction to traumatic experiences. Later the method will be tested on soldiers.
"This new method is being developed to serve as a kind of inoculation that can prevent battlefield post-traumatic stress disorder in advance or very close in time to the incident, as well as immediately after battle," Hendler said. "In cases in which there isn't time for treatment in advance, our goal is to make intensive rehabilitative treatment possible immediately following exposure to the difficult event to prevent post-traumatic stress from setting in."
According to American media reports from April, the U.S. Army has found that one in four U.S. troops serving in battle zones return home with post-traumatic stress disorder, but only 20 percent of those affected receive sufficient treatment for their condition.
The Israeli research, being carried out in conjunction with the IDF Medical Corps with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, is based on findings from previous research conducted by Prof. Hendler on IDF frontline paramedics. The earlier research examined the brain activity of 50 paramedics who had suffered emotional trauma during their military service.
The earlier findings, published in 2009 in the American journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, identified specific areas of the brain that may indicate the infliction of trauma and other parts of the brain that change in response to trauma, including part of the brain's covering and the amygdalae - tiny groups of nuclei deep inside the brain.
A study of Israeli soldiers published in 2009 found that behavioral evaluations at IDF enlistment centers were unable to predict which recruits were predisposed to post-traumatic stress disorder. The new research, however, is geared toward patients whose brain patterns, as opposed to their behavior, indicate a susceptibility to post-traumatic stress disorder. About 20 percent of the general population has this susceptibility.
"For people of high susceptibility to post-traumatic stress our hope is that training the brain in ways directed at activity in certain areas, and linking certain areas, can improve their resilience," Hendler said. "This new tool makes it possible to be conscious of brain activity in areas that we have identified as increasing the risk of trauma."
The U.S. Army has decided to change its treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, shifting the approach away from antipsychotic and antianxiety drugs and also altering its approach to diagnosis.