Combatting PTSD by letting patients hear their own brainwaves
Currently, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is usually treated with psychotherapy and antidepressants, but with the variability of the human mind those aren't always effective. Now a study conducted at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center has found that a novel form of treatment reduced symptoms of the disorder by effectively letting patients "hear" their own brainwaves.
While it affects an estimated 7 to 8 percent of the general US population, PTSD is a particular problem for people serving in the military. The US Department of Veterans Affairs reports that at some point in their lives, the condition affects about 12 percent of Gulf War veterans, up to 20 percent of Iraq War vets and up to 30 percent of Vietnam veterans. Symptoms include depression, insomnia, flashbacks, and emotional distress, which can over time greatly disrupt a person's everyday life.
"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. "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."
To that end, the Wake team used a technology called high-resolution, relational, resonance-based, electroencephalic mirroring (HIRREM). This system works by taking readings of the electrical signals in a patient's brain through sensors placed on their scalp, and feeding these frequencies into a computer. There, algorithms turn those readings into auditory frequencies and play them back in close to real-time, letting patients literally hear their own brain activity.
According to the team, the brain quickly makes the connection that what it's hearing are its own oscillations, and if they're too erratic it will naturally "self-optimize," settling down into a balanced and quiet pattern. As a result, that resets the stress response patterns and helps fight the symptoms of PTSD.
The researchers tested the technique with 18 people who currently or previously served in the military and had experienced symptoms of PTSD for between one and 25 years. Over 12 days, these patients received on average about 20 HIRREM sessions each, with symptoms recorded both before and after. The team also took heart rate and blood pressure readings, and followed up with the patients after one, three and six months.
"We observed reductions in post-traumatic symptoms, including insomnia, depressive mood and anxiety that were durable through six months after the use of HIRREM, but additional research is needed to confirm these initial findings," says Tegeler. "This study is also the first to report improvement in heart rate variability and baroreflex sensitivity – physiological responses to stress – after the use of an intervention for service members or veterans with ongoing symptoms of post-traumatic stress."
While the results are encouraging, the researchers do note that the study has its limitations. A sample size of 18 is very small, the results weren't compared to a control group, and the patients were told beforehand what was happening, meaning the placebo effect might have played a role. Still, it's an intriguing idea, and further tests could lend more weight to it.
The study was published in the journal Military Medical Research.