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Pre-Clinical Study Suggests How Steroid Can Reverse Post-Traumatic Stress

Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center, working with mice, have shown how the body’s own natural stress hormone can help lastingly decrease the fearful response associated with reliving a traumatic memory.//

Days after experiencing a traumatic event – a mild electrical shock – mice in the study still showed a fearful response when re-exposed to the place where it happened, a condition that could be a model for post-traumatic stress disorder in humans. But mice receiving the hormone corticosterone at the time they “relived” the event experienced a significant drop in that fear.

“Corticosterone appears to enhance new memories that compete with the fearful memory thereby decreasing its negative emotional significance,” said Dr. Craig Powell, senior author and assistant professor of neurology and psychiatry at UT Southwestern. “When an animal or human is exposed to or relives an aversive scenario, a process called extinction creates a competing memory.”

“We’re not erasing memories,” said Dr. Robert Greene, professor of psychiatry at UT Southwestern and another author of the study. “What the steroid does is attenuate the fear memory by helping the mice to learn that these contexts should no longer be perceived as dangerous.”

While other researchers have tested such steroids clinically with some success for patients with disorders of emotional memories such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and phobias, those studies did not control for a number of variables and were not designed to address the mechanism of the drug’s action, Dr. Greene said.

This study focused on a mechanism called extinction, in which a memory gradually diminishes, but can be re-established by a small reminder of the original event.

“Our studies show that glucocorticoids work specifically to enhance the extinction of fear memory, as opposed to other mechanisms affecting recall, such as eliminating the memory entirely,”
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