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Hyperbaric oxygen therapy may hold key to treating PTSD

A new study conducted by an Israeli research time finds promise in the treatment of PTSD with Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT). Photo credit: The Times.Co.UK

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In a just released study, Israeli researchers say that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms can be reduced through the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT).

"We've started in this research to treat PTSD in a way that seeks to have an effect on the actual physical changes in the brain," said Dr. Keren Doenyas-Barak, a member of the team involved in the study.

"We have two main vessels bringing blood to the brain and only certain parts of the brain are active when we don't have enough energy for the rest. These hypo-metabolized brain regions cannot heal if they don't have enough energy." 

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is designed to increase the supply of oxygen to the body's blood and tissues. In breathable air, the oxygen level is about 21 percent; during HBOT the oxygen level is raised to 100 percent inside a hyperbaric chamber.

Until recently, the U.S. Government Accountability Office and a 2017 review concluded that HBOT was not an effective treatment of PTSD.  

The oxygen research was conducted from March 2018 to April 2019. Thirty-five Israeli Defense Force (IDF) veterans with combat-associated PTSD participated.    

"Today we understand that treatment-resistant PTSD is caused by a biological wound in brain tissues, which obstructs attempts at psychological and psychiatric treatments," continued Professor Shai Efrati, the leader of the research team.

He added that oxygen therapy "induces reactivation and proliferation of stem cells, as well as generation of new blood vessels and increased brain activity."

Besides Efrati and Doenyas-Barak, the team also included Professor Shai Efrati, Dr. Ilan Kutz, Dr. Merav Catalogna, Dr. Efrat Sasson, Dr. Amir Hadanny, Gabriela Levi, and Yarden Shechter from the Sagol School of Neuroscience and the Faculties of Medicine and Life Sciences at Tel Aviv University and the Shamir Medical Center.

All of the IDF combat veterans had undergone treatment for PTSD but had been resistant to both psychiatric medications and psychotherapy.

During the research period, the veterans were divided into two groups; one group of 17 veterans served as a control group; a second group of 18 veterans received HBOT. It is this group that went through a course of 60 daily sessions in a hyperbaric chamber for about three months.

According to the researchers, PTSD symptoms were sharply reduced, with a specific improvement in treating hyper-arousal, avoidance and depression. They also pointed out these improvements are related to specific biological factors like changes in brain activity and heart rate, both of which have been identified as effects of PTSD.

"Our results indicate that exposure to severe emotional trauma can cause organic damage to the brain," explained Efrati.

"We also demonstrate for the first time that direct biological treatment of brain tissues can serve as a tool for helping PTSD patients. Moreover, our findings may be most significant for diagnosis."

Currently, no effective diagnostic method has been developed, and the diagnosis of PTSD remains based on personal reports that are by definition subjective. 

Efrati pointed out that this situation has resulted in confusion between suffering veterans and those responsible for treating them.

"At present, we are conducting continuing research in order to identify the biological fingerprint of PTSD, which can ultimately enable the development of innovative objective diagnostic tools," Efrati said.

While study on the use of hyperbaric oxygen treatment on those suffering from PTSD will continue, Doenyas-Barak is optimistic.

"This study gives real hope to PTSD sufferers," she concluded.

"For the first time in years the study's participants, most of whom had suffered from severe PTSD, were able to leave the horrors behind and look forward to a better future."

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