A team of researchers who have pioneered novel treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been awarded an $11 million, four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to investigate the differences between virtual reality and traditional prolonged exposure therapy.
The study, led by Dr. JoAnn Difede at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, will test two different ways to treat PSTD with a total of 300 military and civilian personnel in New York; Washington, D.C.; and Los Angeles. Co-investigators include Dr. Barbara Rothbaum, director of the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine, and Dr. Albert "Skip" Rizzo, associate director of medical virtual reality at the University of Southern California (USC) Institute for Creative Technologies and a research professor at USC's Davis School of Gerontology and the USC Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences. The study will be located at two clinical sites in addition to NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell: Dr. Rothbaum is working with the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and National Intrepid Center of Excellence in the Washington, D.C., area; Dr. Rizzo, with the VA Medical
Center in Long Beach, Calif.
"Combat-related PTSD is notoriously difficult to treat. Our study's large-scale head-to-head investigation of virtual reality compared to traditional exposure treatment for PTSD could answer decisively which intervention is most effective, and for whom," says Dr. Difede, who directs the Program for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Studies at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell and serves as professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. "Knowledge we obtain from this clinical trial will help both civilians and military personnel cope with PTSD and could potentially expand the offerings of first-line treatments for this disorder."
People with PTSD are haunted by events that happened in their past. This anxiety disorder can develop following a traumatic event, such as war, a car accident, fire or a personal assault. Symptoms include re-experiencing the event, such as through nightmares and flashbacks, avoidance and feelings of numbness and emotional detachment, and hyperarousal such as difficulty sleeping and jumpiness.
Each group of participants will receive two educational sessions followed by seven weekly sessions of exposure therapy-either virtual reality exposure therapy, or prolonged imaginal exposure therapy. Each group will also be randomized to receive a pill containing either the drug D-cycloserine or a placebo prior to exposure therapy sessions.
D-cycloserine, or DCS, is an antibiotic approved by the FDA 50 years ago to treat tuberculosis that has also been found by researchers at Emory to act as a cognitive enhancer. "PTSD can be viewed as a disorder of learning, and this drug seems to facilitate patients' ability to learn that the trauma is over and the dangerous situation has passed," Dr. Difede says.
The researchers also will search for genetic variants that may make some individuals more vulnerable to developing PTSD, as well as which interventions are most likely to succeed. Currently there are no genetic biomarkers for assessing treatment response to any psychiatric disorder, and findings from this study may lead to the development of the first human genetic test that could guide treatment with gene-based therapeutic strategies, they say.