By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/15/2010 8:17:46 AM ET 2010-12-15T13:17:46

Along with first aid supplies, paramedics may one day carry a stash of pills designed to protect patients from post-traumatic stress disorder — at least that’s what researchers from Northwestern University are hoping.

  1. Don't miss these Health stories
    1. Splash News
      More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?

      Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.

    2. Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
    3. Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
    4. CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
    5. What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says

Scientists there have found a medication that can prevent an exaggerated fear response in mice very similar to PTSD in people, according to a study just published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

“Someday emergency personnel could be prepared to deliver this kind of help, just as they do bandages,” said the study’s senior author, Dr. Jelena Radulovic, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and Dunbar Scholar at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

PTSD can develop after a frightening and traumatizing event, such as an earthquake, rape, or military combat. Scientists have long suspected that the condition occurs when something goes wrong in the brain as it tries to deal with the aftermath of severe emotional stress.

  1. Don't miss these Health stories
    1. Splash News
      More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?

      Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.

    2. Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
    3. Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
    4. CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
    5. What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says

People with PTSD tend to be overly alert and aroused, constantly worried that something bad will happen, Radulovic said. This makes them prone to insomnia and panic attacks.

Radulovic and her colleagues suspected that traumatizing events flip a switch in the hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in creating new memories. In some people, that switch gets stuck in the "on" position, leaving hippocampal nerve cells in an overly excited state which the brain can’t switch off on its own.

To see if they could turn off the switch chemically, the researchers turned to a mouse model of PTSD. As it turns out, if you subject mice to a series of frightening situations — in this case, confinement and then slight shocks — the mice will become overly frightful and behave much like a person with post-traumatic stress.

In Radulovic’s experiment, mice were given two chemicals, known as MPEP and MTEP, within five hours of their traumatic experiences. Sure enough, the mice behaved normally.

While Radulovic knows it’s a long way from mouse experiments to human treatments, she’s hoping that future studies will pave the way for a simple therapy to prevent PTSD.

Dr. Steven Berkowitz, a PTSD expert unaffiliated with the new study, said the new results were “very exciting,” but that it's hard to know at this early stage where the experiments will lead.

Radulovic’s approach makes sense, said Berkowitz, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Youth and Family Trauma Response. The earlier you can treat someone for PTSD the better -- whether it’s with medication or behavioral therapy -- since it becomes increasingly difficult to reverse changes to the brain as time goes on, Berkowitz said.

A recent study by Berkowitz and colleagues showed that the risk of PTSD in children could be greatly reduced if parents and kids got therapy within 30 days of the traumatic event. And scientists now know that chronic PTSD can lead to changes in the brain, including shrinkage of certain areas. "So the sooner you can intervene, the more able you will be to reverse these changes," Berkowitz said.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments