Health & Science

Oxygen to treat post-traumatic stress disorder?

A small study in Israel showed promising results in reducing post-traumatic stress disorder with oxygen treatment. It had a biological approach rather than trying to heal only with psychotherapy.

Trauma PTSD

A small Israeli study showed that hyperbaric oxygen chamber therapy could reduce post-traumatic stress disorder.

The results of the randomized and controlled trial conducted between March 2018 and April 2019 were published on February 22 in the peer-review publication Plos one. The research was led by Tel Aviv University in cooperation with Shamir Medical Center, a government hospital in Israel.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event.

The team tested oxygen treatment on 18 war veterans suffering from PTSD resistant to both psychiatric medications and psychotherapy. Another group of 17 war veterans with similar conditions served as the control group.

At the end of the oxygen therapy in a pressurized chamber, half of the patients were no longer considered to have PTSD. The therapy consisted of 60 sessions conducted daily, five times a week.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy, or HBOT, isn’t usually used to heal PTSD. It is however administered to people suffering from carbon monoxide poisonings like firefighters or miners, gangrene and infections in which tissues lack oxygen. Scuba divers who suffer from decompression sickness can also be treated with HBOT.

Patients go in a chamber with a higher pressure than the atmospheric average and breathe pure oxygen, avoiding tissue dying for lack of oxygen.

Trauma affects brain structure and functioning

What is new in the treatment of PTSD is the physiological approach.

In fact, traumatic events cause long-term alterations of brain activity and its structure. In a way, oxygen therapy sought to repair brain damage.

We’ve started in this research to treat PTSD in a way that seeks to effect on actual physical changes in the brain,” Dr. Keren Doenyas-Barak, part of the team behind the study told The Times of Israel.

After the therapy, symptoms associated with PTSD and results from brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) both improved. After an oxygenation session, the study showed an increase in brain activity of frontal lobes, a region responsible for emotional regulation, and hippocampus, which plays an important role in memory (damage to the hippocampus can result from oxygen starvation).

According to the study, cerebral oxygenation is thought to induce neuroplasticity, which is the capacity of the brain’s neural network to change and, as a consequence, heal from trauma wounds.

Seven subjects from the HBOT group even surfaced new memories of the traumatic event during the second half of the treatment course. For one of them new memory even appeared abruptly as a flashback, the report says. These memory recoveries were unexpected by researchers.

However, the control group was aware it didn’t undergo oxygen therapy, given the nature of the treatment, which can affect answers to the questionnaire and results of the MRI. The other main limitation of the study is the very small sample size, which would need to be broadened before making more assertive conclusions.

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