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PTSD and Evidence-Based Practices

Biological Mechanisms and PTSD

PTSD DSM-IV-TR Diagnostic Criteria
PTSD Statistics and Co-Morbidity
Biological Mechanisms and PTSD
Exposure Therapy
Trauma-Focused Therapy
Additional Information

  • Research suggests that prolonged trauma can disrupt and alter brain chemistry.  For some people, this may lead to the development of PTSD.
  • The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the VA sponsor a wide range of basic, clinical, and genetic studies of PTSD.
  • Studies in animals and humans have focused on pinpointing the specific brain areas and circuits involved in anxiety and fear, which underlie anxiety disorders such as PTSD.
  • Fear, an emotion that evolved to deal with danger, causes an automatic, rapid, protective response that occurs without the need for conscious thought.  It has been found that the body's fear response is coordinated by a small structure deep inside the brain, called the Amygdala.
  • Recent research suggests that different anxiety disorders may be associated with abnormal activation of the Amygdala.  One aim of research is to use this knowledge to develop new therapies.
  • Animal studies show that the Hippocampus - a part of the brain critical to emotion-laden memories - appears to be smaller in cases of PTSD.  Brain imaging studies indicate similar findings in Humans.  Changes in the Hippocampus are thought to be responsible for intrusive memories and flashbacks that occur in people with PTSD.


  • People with PTSD tend to have abnormal levels of key hormones involved in response to stress.  Some studies have shown that Cortisol levels are lower than normal and Epinephrine and Norepinephrine are higher than normal.
  • When people are in danger, they produce high levels of natrual opiates, which can temporarily mask pain.  Scientists have found that people with PTSD continue to produce those higher levels even after the danger has passed; this may lead to the blunted emotions associated with the condition.
  • Research done to understand the Neurotransmitter System involved in memories of emotionally charged events may lead to discovery of new drugs that, if given early, could block the development of PTSD symptoms.
  • The most widely used drug treatments for PTSD are the Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI's), such as Prozac and Zoloft.
  • At present, various forms of Psychotherapy appear to be more effective than drug therapy.

Amber Hursh, Justin Reimenschneider, Justine Tedesco
RSSW 705 Evidence-Based Practice in Mental Health
Dr. Zvi Gellis, SUNY Albany, Rockefeller College of Social Work