TAU achieves breakthrough in treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder

Clinical example of functional brain imaging by fMRI. Credit: Shamir Medical Center.

Researchers develop new oxygen therapy method that successfully alleviates symptoms of PTSD in military veterans

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Researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) and Israel’s Shamir Medical Center were able to successfully relieve the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder  (PTSD) in military combat veterans using a new protocol of hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT). In a controlled clinical trial involving Israeli army veterans who suffered from treatment-resistant PTSD, the approach demonstrated significant improvement in all classes of symptoms.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), almost 4% of the global population, and 30% of all combat soldiers, develop PTSD.

Hyperbaric medicine involves treatments in a pressurized chamber where atmospheric pressure is higher than sea-level pressure and the air is rich with oxygen. Considered a safe form of treatment, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is already used for a range of medical conditions. Evidence gathered in recent years indicates that special hyperbaric protocols can improve the supply of oxygen to the brain, thereby enhancing the generation of new blood vessels and neurons. It must be noted that HBOT treatments require the evaluation and supervision of qualified physicians. Moreover, it should be provided with a certified chamber with appropriate quality assurance using the exact studied treatment protocols.

The breakthrough research was led by Professor Shai Efrati, Dr. Keren Doenyas-Barak, Dr. Ilan Kutz, Dr. Merav Catalogna, Dr. Efrat Sasson, Dr. Amir Hadanny, Gabriela Levi, and Yarden Shechter from TAU’s Sagol School of Neuroscience at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences at Tel Aviv University and the Shamir Medical Center. The peer-reviewed study was published today in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

The study included 35 combat veterans of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who suffered from PTSD that was resistant to both psychiatric medications and psychotherapy.

“The veterans were divided into two groups: one group received hyperbaric oxygen therapy while the other served as a control group,” explains Dr. Doenyas-Barak. “Following a protocol of 60 treatments, improvement was demonstrated in all PTSD symptoms, including hyper-arousal, avoidance, and depression. Moreover, both functional and structural improvement was observed in the non-healing brain wounds that characterize PTSD. We believe that, in most patients, improvements will be preserved for years after the completion of the treatment.

“This study gives real hope to PTSD sufferers. For the first time in years the study’s participants, most of whom had suffered from severe PTSD, were able to leave the horrors behind and look forward to a better future.”

“Today we understand that treatment-resistant PTSD is caused by a biological wound in brain tissue, which obstructs attempts at psychological and psychiatric treatments,” explains Prof. Efrati, the director of the Sagol Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Research at Shamir Medical Center. “With the new hyperbaric oxygen therapy protocols, we can activate mechanisms that repair the damaged brain tissue. The treatment induces reactivation and proliferation of stem cells, as well as generation of new blood vessels and increased brain activity, ultimately restoring the functionality of the injured tissue. Our study paves the way to a better understanding of the connection between mind and body.

“Our results indicate that exposure to severe emotional trauma can cause organic damage to the brain,” says Prof. Efrati, the study’s principal investigator. “We also demonstrate for the first time that direct biological treatment of brain tissues can serve as a tool for helping PTSD patients.”

Moreover, Prof. Efrati explains that the findings may be most significant for new diagnostic strategies. “To date, no effective diagnostic method has been developed and diagnosis of PTSD is still based on personal reports which are necessarily subjective – leading to many clashes between the suffering veterans and the authorities responsible for treating them,” he says. “Think of a person who comes to the emergency room with chest pains. The pain might be caused by either a panic attack or a heart attack, and without objective EKG and blood tests, the doctors might miss a heart attack. At present we are continuing research in order to identify the biological fingerprint of PTSD, which can ultimately enable the development of innovative objective diagnostic tools.”