A new wave of PTSD
More than ever, healthcare professionals are facing unprecedented stressors. Researchers are warning that the coronavirus pandemic could inflict posttraumatic stress disorder on an unprecedented global scale. Even though some effective strategies for the treatment of PTSD exist, memory for traumatic experiences is strong and resistant to change. As a result, a substantial proportion of patients experience a relapse even after initial treatment success. The partial or full reappearance of fear may be explained by intact memories that resurface. Once a fear memory has been established, it is to be held forever.
A new intervention for traumatised healthcare workers
Yet there is reason for optimism: recent years have witnessed rapidly emerging evidence for the plasticity of fear memories. Upon retrieval a memory may be rendered labile and vulnerable to the disruptive effects of amnestic agents: this process is referred to as “disrupting reconsolidation” and may point to a novel therapeutic strategy for the permanent reduction of fear in patients suffering from anxiety disorders and PTSD.
Abundant evidence now indicates that fear memories are susceptible to disruption by β-adrenergic blockades during reconsolidation. Both human studies and clinical practice indeed show that the administration of the β-adrenergic receptor antagonist propranolol upon retrieval decreases conditioned fear among healthy individuals, pathological fear in phobic patients, and even posttraumatic stress symptoms in trauma victims.
Here the aim is to adapt and implement this novel treatment strategy – that yields long-term cure within a single treatment-session – for traumatised healthcare professionals during COVID-19.
About the researchers
Dr. Merel Kindt is a Professor at the University of Amsterdam. Her research is concerned with the understanding of neurobiological and psychological processes of fear and anxiety and the mechanisms of change in the treatment of anxiety and related disorders. In cooperation with other scientists, she developed a new treatment method that quickly and effectively treats phobias and posttraumatic stress disorder. 80% of patients overcome their fear after just one treatment session. Given the wide-ranging clinical implications, the treatment strategy has generated substantial (inter)national media attention.
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Dr. Marieke Soeter currently works for TNO as a research scientist, with an expertise in clinical psychology and neuroscience. Her research is concerned with i. the plasticity of memory, and ii. the development of new treatment strategies. Collaborating with Prof. dr. Merel Kindt, she was the first to show fear memory “erasure” in humans through targeting the process of reconsolidation. Starting with fundamental research using the fear-conditioning paradigm, the laboratory findings are now demonstrated in clinical populations. Hence, years of translational research are progressing into reconsolidation-based interventions for anxiety and related disorders.
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