SAN ANTONIO (March 19, 2008)—A $33 million research program—the largest ever undertaken to help our courageous armed forces personnel cope with combat-related traumatic stress—will likely ensure better detection, prevention and treatment of traumatic stress’s often-devastating effects and improve countless lives, study leaders said today at a press conference at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
The research program is supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) as part of $450 million the U.S. Congress allocated in 2007 to address the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The DoD Peer-Review Medical Research Program awarded the grant.
Called STRONG STAR (South Texas Research Organizational Network Guiding Studies on Trauma And Resilience), the five-year study will be conducted by a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional research consortium under the direction of Alan L. Peterson, Ph.D., professor in the department of psychiatry at the UT Health Science Center.
The study will develop and evaluate the most effective early interventions in active-duty and recently discharged veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. “Recent studies have found that about one of every six returning veterans of these operations has symptoms of PTSD, and one of the most common examples is exposure to horribly injured people and human remains as a result of roadside bomb explosions,” said Dr. Peterson, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force who treated traumatized military personnel in Iraq.
One of the first treatments to be evaluated, “exposure therapy,” is already the most thoroughly researched treatment for PTSD in civilian populations. However, its efficacy for military personnel with combat-related PTSD has not been demonstrated in a research study as large or rigorously scientific as STRONG STAR.
“Exposure therapy exposes people to things they often avoid, such as details of the memory of the traumatic event that happened or triggers in the environment that remind them of the event,” Dr. Peterson said. “We get them to talk about it in enough detail that they process it, and the memories no longer trigger PTSD symptoms. What people fear are the memories, but the memories aren’t dangerous and can’t hurt like the actual event once did. We have them talk about the details of the event to the point that they get so accustomed to them that they no longer have strong reactions. We also work on exposure to environmental triggers such as driving or being in crowds that might lead to flashbacks and anxiety.”
The STRONG STAR scientific program will be conducted by 85 investigators, including about one-third from the uniformed military, one-third from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and one-third from universities and civilian centers. Areas of concentration will include:
• the evaluation of various forms of exposure therapy treatments for combat-related PTSD in active-duty military and recently discharged veterans
• neuroimaging to document changes that take place in the brain in response to treatment
• methods of assessing PTSD
• genomics to identify genes and gene products that confer PTSD risk
“Civilian literature seems to suggest that with early intervention 60 percent to 70 percent of individuals with PTSD can be successfully treated, which means their daily lives are not impaired by flashbacks or behaviors such as seeking isolation,” Dr. Peterson said. “If we intervene early, we believe we can minimize the damage done in many lives.”
Officials from Brooke Army Medical Center, Wilford Hall Medical Center and the South Texas Veterans Health Care System, U.S. Rep. Charlie Gonzalez and U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez attended today’s press conference to express their support for this effort to improve the lives of our nation’s brave armed forces personnel.
The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is the leading research institution in South Texas and one of the major health sciences universities in the world. With an operating budget of $576 million and 5,000 faculty and staff, the Health Science Center is the chief catalyst for the $15.3 billion biosciences and health care sector in San Antonio’s economy. The Health Science Center has had an estimated $35 billion impact on the region since inception and has expanded to seven campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. More than 23,000 graduates (physicians, dentists, nurses, scientists and allied health professionals) serve in their fields, including many in Texas. Health Science Center faculty are international leaders in cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, aging, stroke prevention, kidney disease, orthopedics, research imaging, transplant surgery, psychiatry and clinical neurosciences, pain management, genetics, nursing, allied health, dentistry and many other fields. For more information, visit www.uthscsa.edu.