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Treating PTSD: A Look At World-Renowned Research Conducted At Texas A&M University

Neuroscientist Stephen Maren shares the impact and advancements of his research on PTSD through the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

By Alix Poth ‘18

It’s estimated that one in 13 people in the U.S. will develop PTSD in their lifetime. It is a psychiatric disorder that is increasingly affecting the lives of every person in the country—whether the effect is personal or through a family member or friend. Research has found that as many as 54 percent of suicides among people with PTSD are due to the disorder.

University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences Stephen Maren knows of this rising concern, and has dedicated his energy and resources to understanding, treating, and preventing PTSD.

“Any psychiatric illness is just that—an illness. It is not the result of a failure to cope or deal with stressful events,” said Maren. “These are treatable brain illnesses that we need to invest resources in to understanding these conditions. Psychological and neurological disorders are just as important as cardiovascular diseases or cancer.”

According to the National Center for PTSD, when symptoms such as reliving trauma through flashbacks, avoiding situations that are reminders the event, or losing sleep and concentration persist for more than a few months, it may be a sign of developing PTSD.

Maren notes that PTSD is particularly relevant given the ever-increasing levels of stress that people are experiencing in combat roles and in our day-to-day lives. Up to 70 percent of adults in the U.S. have experienced some type of trauma in their lives, and close to 20 percent of those—nearly 45 million people—go on to develop PTSD.

However, even with the advancements of awareness and treatments of PTSD, there are still stigmas that surround mental health issues that prevent people from seeking help.

Maren researches the neurobiology behind anxiety disorders like PTSD. Focusing on areas of the brain like hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex, he seeks to understand emotional memory, which is what causes people suffering from PTSD to pathologically re-experience a traumatic event.

“They’re sitting there, and they hear a noise, and suddenly they find themselves back in the situation where an IED went off and they see the carnage and feel again that their life is threatened,” Maren said. “Or they relive a car accident or an attempted assault. Anything where a person feels in serious danger can cause PTSD.”

Because of Maren’s groundbreaking research, significant progress has been made to understand and treat the relapse of fear that people with PTSD suffer from. Studying the pathophysiology of PTSD can pave the way for new treatments that reduce fear and its relapse after therapy, Maren said.

“We’re trying to normalize activity in brain circuits that become abhorrent with trauma—a completely novel approach to treating mental illness,” Maren said. “There is no question that the incidents of PTSD are on the rise… We are ultimately interested in clinical interventions that can help people that have experienced trauma. And Texas A&M has invested heavily in expanding these neuroscience research efforts.”