Exposure therapy is one of the leading treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but up to a half of all patients don’t respond to it.
In a study from UNSW Sydney, scientists found that augmenting the therapy with 10 minutes of aerobic exercise has led to patients reporting greater reduction to PTSD symptom severity six months after the nine-week treatment.
In the study, the team tested 130 adults with PTSD and assigned them to two groups. People in both groups received nine 90-minute exposure therapy sessions.
At the end of each session, one group was put through 10 minutes of aerobic exercises, while members of the control group were given 10 minutes of passive stretching.
The team found people in the aerobic exercise group on average reported lower severity of PTSD symptoms than those who had their exposure therapy augmented by stretching exercises at the six-month follow-up.
Interestingly, there were no clear differences between the two groups one week after the treatment program ended, suggesting the benefits take time to develop.
The team says the goal of exposure therapy in treating PTSD is extinction learning, where a patient learns to equate something that up until now they have associated with the trauma, with a feeling of safety.
Exposure therapy would focus on these triggers and try to demonstrate they offer no threat, with the hope that after repeated, gradual exposure, extinction learning is embedded in the brain of the sufferer.
They think brief, intense exercise promotes a particular growth molecule in the brain called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or BDNF.
it actually promotes synaptic plasticity in the brain, which is really important for learning. And we know that this underpins extinction learning.
So if scientists can get this BDNF more active in the brain, at the time of exposure therapy, theoretically, that should lead to better extinction.
For more information about mental health, please see recent studies that ultra-processed foods may make you feel depressed, and antioxidants that could help reduce the risk of dementia.
The study was conducted by Richard Bryant et al and published in The Lancet Psychiatry.
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