Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychological (and possibly physical) condition triggered by a terrifying event. Symptoms can include insomnia, irritability, sadness, insomnia, and hyper-alertness, which can vary over time on an individual-to-individual basis.
Traditionally, it is treated with psychotherapy and drugs. Now, thanks to the work of scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, there could be a third way, which involves patients listening to their own brainwaves. Trials are still in the early stages, but the results so far are promising.
The research, published in Military Medical Research last month, follows the success of a small pilot study that saw patients suffering from post-traumatic stress experience a decrease in symptoms after undergoing a similar treatment.
Patients can develop PTSD following any traumatic event (e.g. a terrorist attack), but the disorder is especially common among vets and soldiers on active duty. Around 7 or 8 percent of the general population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. This jumps to 11 to 20 percent in veterans who served in either Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) or Enduring Freedom (OEF). For those who served in Vietnam, the figure is 30 percent.
"Ongoing symptoms of post-traumatic stress, whether clinically diagnosed or not, are a pervasive problem in the military," says Charles H. Tegeler, principal investigator on the study, in a statement. "Medications are often used to help control specific symptoms, but can produce side effects. Other treatments may not be well tolerated, and few show a benefit for the associated sleep disturbance. Additional noninvasive, non-drug therapies are needed."
The experiment involved a technology called high-resolution, relational, resonance-based, electroencephalic mirroring, or HIRREM for short. Essentially, sensors read the electrical signals in the volunteers’ brain and send these through to a computer that turn the data into auditory frequencies. The volunteers, therefore, could “hear” their brain activity in close to real time.
According to the scientists, the volunteer's brain recognizes that the auditory frequencies are its own electrical signals and seem to modify them accordingly if they are unstable.
All the volunteers had or were currently serving in the military and had been suffering from some form of PTSD for a year or longer. They received an average of 20 sessions.
The scientists measured the severity of their symptoms before and after treatment, as well as their heart rate and blood pressure readings. They then followed up after one, three, and six months.
While this is an extremely small study (only 18 volunteers took part), the results are encouraging.
“We observed reductions in post-traumatic symptoms, including insomnia, depressive mood and anxiety that were durable through six months after the use of HIRREM,” Tegeler added.
At this stage, more research is needed. Not only was the sample size extremely small, there was no control group involved in the study, all but one volunteer was Caucasian, and only one female took part.