New Treatment Hope for PTSD?

New Treatment Hope for PTSD?

Creighton psychology professor Amy Badura-Brack, Ph.D., and her team of researchers have found that a seemingly simple computer program — something almost like a game — has opened a new way of understanding the brain’s actions and reactions in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Their study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, reports promising results for the treatment of military veterans with PTSD. The researchers hope that Attention Control Training (ACT) — as the program is known — will offer a new and much less emotionally taxing type of treatment for PTSD, which affects about 9 percent of the U.S. population.

How did this study begin?
At Ease USA, a nonprofit agency that supports active and retired U.S. military personnel, announced it was funding a trial on attention training for PTSD, and I jumped at the opportunity. I led the Creighton University team with (then student) Timothy McDermott, BA’15, recent graduate and research coordinator, Tara Ryan, BSBA’10, and associate professor of psychology Maya Khanna, Ph.D. Professor Yair Bar-Haim, Ph.D., led a team from Tel-Aviv University in Israel. Daniel Pine, M.D., from the National Institute of Mental Health, was integral in the research, as well.

How does your treatment work?
Everyone has a threat monitoring system, which allows us to distinguish between dangerous and neutral stimuli and respond appropriately. Individuals with PTSD have disrupted threat monitoring that fluctuates between dwelling on and avoiding a perceived threat. Attention Control Training (ACT) is a computerized attention-training program that normalizes these intense fluctuations.

How does the program work to normalize the fluctuations brought on by PTSD?
The program presents two stimuli (one threatening and one neutral) on a computer screen, followed by an arrow pointing left or right. Participants are asked to indicate which way the arrow points. Because the task requires participants to focus on that arrow, rather than the two stimuli, the treatment implicitly teaches participants that potentially threatening stimuli (in a safe environment) are irrelevant to completing the task.

What were the results of these sessions?
After ACT treatment, the veterans’ PTSD symptoms were significantly reduced. To offer some context, many veterans described improvements in daily functions, as well as reduced symptoms. For example, during deployments, veterans may experience traumatic combat events while driving in convoys that lead to PTSD. After treatment, these veterans described that, while driving their own vehicles, they were no longer being triggered into intense PTSD symptoms by seeing a rock on the side of the road that reminded them of a potential bomb. The veterans were able to ignore irrelevant, potentially threatening information in a safe environment. Treatment allowed them to stay focused on the task at hand — driving — in this example.

Were there any surprises you found during your research?
Yes, the main surprise was how effective this simple treatment was. In all honesty, I began the clinical trial hoping to find a helpful add-on treatment to traditional exposure therapy for PTSD. I did not initially expect ACT to be a standalone intervention. However, given the results of the trial, ACT — by itself — can reduce symptoms of PTSD below diagnostic thresholds, so I am excited about its effectiveness.

How do you plan to move forward with your research?
I am pleased that At Ease USA has funded a second grant, allowing us to create a Web-deliverable version of this intervention. I am actively working with Dr. Bar-Haim and Dr. Pine toward the completion of this goal. We should begin our next phase of clinical trials to tweak and validate the ACT treatment to maximize effectiveness in 2016. We will also test ACT’s effectiveness in PTSD related to other types of trauma as well as an intervention delivered over the Internet instead of in a clinic. After these trials are complete, we expect to offer mental health professionals access to the treatment so that they can prescribe it to their patients.

How do you hope your research will help individuals suffering from PTSD?
I look forward to validating this treatment’s effectiveness and then making it available for therapeutic use to help people suffering with symptoms of posttraumatic stress. I deeply hope that the treatment we tested in this research will be supported in the next round of trials. The treatment is quick, easy and effective.

Participants Needed for Upcoming Study

Persons with either noncombat (e.g. sexual assault, motor vehicle accident) or combat-related PTSD who are interested in participating in the next round of clinical trials are invited to contact: Amy Badura-Brack, Ph.D., at or 402.280.1229