Common drug for blood pressure gives new hope to PTSD patients

A single drug capsule

Image: Wikimedia Commons

A common prescription for high blood pressure may also help patients diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD, researchers at Texas A&M University say in a newly released study.

Co-author Stephen Maren, a professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts, says the study examined whether dampening a neurotransmitter system that conveys stress signals to the cortex could help PTSD patients to suppress traumatic memories.

PTSD is a psychiatric illness triggered by experiencing a real or perceived threat to one’s safety, or witnessing a similar threat to someone else’s safety. Symptoms include intrusive memories of the trauma, hyperarousal and stress, and avoidance of places or situations that may re-trigger memories of the traumatic event.

“Patients with PTSD have trouble learning to suppress fearful memories of their traumas,” Maren says. “We reasoned that the high levels of stress experienced by PTSD patients might inhibit brain areas, such as the prefrontal cortex, involved in learning to suppress fear.”

In experiments with laboratory rats, the researchers tested the drug propranolol, a beta-blocker used to treat high blood pressure, angina, irregular heartbeat and other heart conditions. The drug is known to also block stress signals to the brain.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published the study, “Noradrenergic blockade stabilizes prefrontal activity and enables fear extinction under stress.” Assistant Research Scientist Paul Fitzgerald is the lead author. Co-authors are graduate students Thomas Giustino and Jocelyn Seemann.

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