Army Funds New Bay Area Institute to Research PTSD Treatment

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Joshua Johnson: Veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan often suffer from post- traumatic stress disorder, sometimes turning to drugs and alcohol to try and deal with stress.
Researchers at University of California, San Francisco are working on ways to treat substance abuse in vets with PTSD.  They are looking for unique solutions for wounded warriors. William Sawyers is chief administrative officer of the new Institute for Molecular Neuroscience. It’s part of the Gallo Research Center affiliated with UCSF. The U.S. Army just awarded 15 million dollars to launch the institute.
Mr. Sawyers, what is it about PTSD in veterans that changes the impact of substance abuse compared to PTSD in civilians?
Sawyers: Well, it’s not entirely clear. There are different theories about what is driving substance abuse among patients with post-traumatic stress, and some people believe that it is self medication, that patients are using alcohol for example, to help deal with some of their symptoms of post-traumatic stress: their inability to get to sleep or hyper arousal. Other people think that people who are vulnerable to post-traumatic stress might also be vulnerable to substance abuse, and so it’s not entirely clear. But it is a potentially different condition, substance abuse in patients who have post-traumatic stress than substance abuse in a different context.
Johnson: I was kind of interested, as I was studying up for this conversation, to learn how little we really know about not only post-traumatic stress but what alcohol does to the brain, period. It’s only recently that we really have the diagnostic tools in a wide enough distribution to really look at what stress, alcohol, drugs do to the brain on a molecular level.
Sawyers: It’s a very complicated question. The Gallo Research Center, affiliated with UCSF, has been doing cutting edge research on substance abuse and alcohol abuse for over 30 years and it is as you said, just now that we’re really unveiling the molecular mechanisms of the brain as to what is happening to cause some people to become addicted to these substances.
Johnson: So talk to us about these cases of PTSD in veterans and substance abuse. How do doctors treat these cases today and where is the room for improvement?
Sawyers: Well, current treatments for post-traumatic stress focus on behavioral therapies, counseling, cognitive therapies. There also are some medications that are being used, although nothing has been fully vetted and fully approved.
The focus of this new program is to find new medications that may be useful in this particular context. Substance abuse in the context of post-traumatic stress, we believe that there are new medications that can be useful for those patients specifically. And that’s what this new research program is focused on.
Johnson: How will this new initiative work? Talk to us about who’s involved and who’s doing what?
Sawyers: We’re coordinating, organizing, and managing and we’ve pulled together a group of world renowned expert advisors and reviewers to help sort through different research projects that have come to us from universities and researchers all over the country that we know, because of our work in this area, do top quality work. They’ve helped us sort through which programs and projects have the most potential for either unveiling new scientific knowledge or potentially finding new medications.
We have a program that is aimed at delivering a portfolio of projects that are early stage, scientific discovery, all the way down to new medications that may be able to be rolled out relatively quickly.  One of the unique aspects of our program is a focus on testing medications that are already proved, already available for other indications. We have some medications that are used for seizures that we think, there’s good evidence to think, that they may be useful in helping people with post-traumatic stress and alcohol addiction. And so, we’ve got this portfolio that’s been put together with the help of this external review panel and we’ve just announced this initial funding Wednesday.
Johnson: Sounds like promising work. William Sawyers is the chief administrative officer of UCSF’s new Institute for Molecular Neuroscience. William, thanks for talking to us.
Sawyers: You bet.

Johnson: I’m Joshua Johnson. More news online at
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