Specially designed sleep interventions may alleviate PTSD risks in people with trauma, says new study
The study discovered that there is a time-sensitive window after experiencing a trauma where optogenetic intervention can help improve sleep duration and quality
There are many types of trauma and all of them are capable of having a deep and negative impact on life. Physical trauma due to accidents or injuries can have a debilitating effect on the quality of life, but that’s not the only sort of trauma that has a lasting impact. A recent study indicated that trauma experienced during childhood can not only lead to lifelong health issues in the person who faced such trauma but also affect the health of generations to come.
Many studies have also revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic can cause psychological trauma not just in patients who have been hospitalised or taken sick due to the infection, but also in those who have seen loved ones suffer, lost jobs, suffered financial or social obstacles or haven’t been able to lead full lives.
Scientists and mental health professionals across the world are gearing up to deal with the amplified effects of global trauma due to the pandemic and devising new methods of providing appropriate therapy for all.
Trauma and sleep have an intricate link
A new study published in Scientific Reports offers a promising new way to deal with trauma, particularly the aspect of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The study, conducted by researchers based at the Washington State University’s Elson S Floyd College of Medicine, suggests that improving sleep and using sleep therapeutics for those who have experienced trauma can reduce the many negative outcomes associated with it.
The researchers argue that sleep disturbances and disorders are very common among trauma-exposed populations. Exposure to trauma further leads to fear-associated memory impairments, which can also exacerbate sleep difficulties. In fact, previous studies have shown that 70-91 percent of PTSD patients have severe difficulties falling asleep and staying asleep and often experience insomnia as a result.
On the other hand, those who are resilient to PTSD show increased theta activity during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, have a reduced autonomic nervous system activation, and have very few heart rate changes during non-REM sleep. This proves that there is a reciprocal relationship between sleep and PTSD, indicating that sleep interventions designed to increase post-trauma sleep can perhaps break the vicious cycle and stave off the development of PTSD.
Possible sleep interventions for trauma patients
In order to understand if these sleep interventions and therapies can work, the researchers conducted a pre-clinical animal model trial using rodents in a lab setting. The scientists used single prolonged stress (SPS) rodent model of PTSD, which combines a number of stressors to initiate molecular, anatomical and behavioural changes, similar to those experienced by humans, in rats. The lab rodents were then exposed to optogenetic stimulations to alter their trauma memories and associated fears to see if this changed their sleep patterns.
Optogenetic stimulations refer to the biological technique of using light to control neurological behaviour.
The scientists found that the rats that had received optogenetic stimulation to increase their sleep time were able to extinguish the memory of trauma better than others. They discovered that there is a time-sensitive window after experiencing the trauma where optogenetic intervention can help improve sleep duration and quality. The researchers argue that exploiting this window for therapy may be difficult in the case of victims of traffic accidents as they have to be hospitalised and treated for their injuries.
But in other trauma patients, specifically military personnel coming back from duty or those who are being discharged from the hospital, this intervention may be used to prevent the onset of PTSD. The researchers stated that while more research needs to be conducted to understand the molecular mechanisms that link sleep and trauma to come up with more easily accessible therapies, their findings do provide a glimpse of hope in this direction, which is much-needed given the urgency of dealing with trauma in the current global situation.
For more information, read our article on Ways to overcome insomnia and sleep better.
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