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As veterans have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan, we are witnessing the devastating effects of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a serious psychiatric disorder that is associated with trauma and combat.
Given that one of the common symptoms of PTSD is sleep disturbances, Shanaz Tejani-Butt, PhD, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is working with researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the VA Medical Center to determine how stress induces the symptoms of PTSD and sleep disturbances.
Their research utilizes the Wistar-Kyoto (WKY) rat; a strain genetically prone to stress sensitivity, depressive-like behaviors, and even alcoholism. They report that when WKY rats are reminded of prior stressful experiences, they exhibit increased anxiety and increased disruption of the rapid eye movement (REM) part of the sleep cycle. However, when WKY rats are provided with social support immediately after the stressful experience, they display decreased anxious behavior and decreased sleep fragmentation.
“Our studies suggest that social support could play an important role in protecting trauma victims from the stressful experiences that get exacerbated in isolation,” said Jamie DaSilva, PhD, a former graduate student who worked in the lab.
“If we are able to understand how the brain changes after stress, we could develop better therapeutic targets,” said Dr. Tejani-Butt. Through her research, Dr. Tejani-Butt hopes to gain insight into the role that genes and the environment play in the development of stress-susceptible or stress-resistant behaviors.