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Stress Produces PTSD-like Symptoms in Rats

Researchers at the University of South Florida and the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa have developed new ways of assessing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder// (PTSD). These new studies show that strong, purely psychological stress produces behavioral symptoms in animal models similar to those commonly observed in people diagnosed with PTSD.

The investigators found that test rats exposed to two intense periods of stress, in conjunction with daily social stress, exhibited increased anxiety, heightened cardiovascular activity and impaired memory.

Phillip Zoladz, a USF doctoral student in psychology, conducted the research under the guidance of David Diamond, a research scientist with the Tampa VA and a professor of psychology and pharmacology at USF.

“Rats were exposed to a cat for one hour,” Zoladz said. “No physical harm came to the rats because of a barrier between the rats and cat.”

Diamond and Zoladz reasoned that because rats have a powerful instinctual fear of cats, the inability of the rats to escape from the cat would be traumatic, and that the experience would be analogous to the terror that people feel in life-threatening situations.

The rats were forced to “relive” their traumatic experience when they were unexpectedly exposed to the cat a second time, 10 days after the first exposure. Researchers also took into account the finding that a lack of social support can increase the likelihood that traumatized people will develop PTSD. The rats were housed with different cage mates on a daily basis to disrupt their social behaviors, followed by behavioral testing three weeks after the second exposure to cats.

People who experience horrific, life-threatening trauma, such as when soldiers are exposed to wartime combat, are at a substantial risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD victims typically suffer from post-trauma distress because they relive their trauma
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