WATCH | A popular anti-inflammatory steroid may be the key to preventing humans from developing PTSD.
What's the drug?
Researchers at the NYU Langone Medical Center, in collaboration with Harvard and Emory University, think they may have just found a way to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from developing in humans.
And the key to doing this may be dexamethasone, a widely used anti-inflammatory steroid.
Taken right after a traumatic experience, like a car crash, this affordable drug (30 cents a pop) could prevent traumatic memories from forming.
One in 13 people will develop PTSD in their lifetime. Every day, 20 veterans will commit suicide as a result of PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"Could you intervene at some sort of golden hour from developing PTSD or other post-traumatic stress responses?"
That's the question Isaac Galatzer-Levy of the NYU Langone Medical Center set out to answer. And the answer is yes -- in mice, at least.
Galatzer-Levy and his research partners gave mice dexamethasone right after a traumatic experience. They found that the drug helped with "fear extinction" by preventing traumatic memories from forming.
What's the science behind this?
The drug targets gene FKBP5, which plays a large role in forming memories after dramatic events through its release of the stress hormone cortisol.
"What cortisol does is it feeds back to the brain and to other aspects of the body, to then down-regulate that initial autonomic response. So it helps us get back down once we've sort of been up."
That gene has a lot to do with who develops PTSD after a traumatic experience.
FKBP5 is a protein-coding gene, associated with diseases like depression and PTSD because it regulates cortisol in the body.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a "condition of persistent mental and emotional stress," as defined by medical journals.
Elisa Knigge, a resident of Washington state, was diagnosed with PTSD in 1991.
"I always lock the door at night. Because every time I was assaulted as a child, it was someone waking me up."
Knigge's diagnosis came years after she was first sexually assaulted as a child, which is what her PTSD stems from. A drug like dexamethasone may have helped her, but it would have required her to speak out right away.
There is no way to prevent PTSD at the moment. Most patients take a cocktail of drugs to control the side-effects, which include insomnia and anxiety.
"It sends me into a manic phase. It's awful," Knigge said. "The medications and I have had a very tumultuous relationship. Talking has helped."
The talking Knigge is referring to is cognitive behavioral therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Norman Haughey, a professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University, says cognitive behavioral therapy -- which trains patients to disassociate memories from traumatic autonomic responses -- is effective, but not permanent.
"They tend to work for some period of time, but over longer periods of time, the effect doesn't seem to last," he said.
Haughey says NYU's findings are "exciting."
"Someone could be treated early following a traumatic event, and that would lessen the long-term impact of that event."
—Norman Haughey, Johns Hopkins Medical Institute
Haughey has studied PTSD extensively. One of his studies found that people who drank alcohol tended to have a harder time with cognitive behavioral therapy.
Galatzer-Levy says NYU is now testing the effect of the drug on humans with PTSD. The findings could have a huge impact on PTSD.
"What you're really manipulating here is the emotional response in a sort of critical window," Galatzer-Levy said.
This is something Elisa Knigge would have loved.
"You're struggling to find some way to even feel human," she said. "It would be great to have relief from that."