Major headway made in treating combat-related PTSD

‘We’re still not able to help everyone, which is why we continue to do additional research’

SAN ANTONIO – It’s a major step in helping those who have post-traumatic stress disorder.

A clinical trial conducted in part by UT Health San Antonio is showing major strides in quickly and effectively treating combat-related PTSD.

“It’s incredibly rewarding. I kind of feel like I’m doing my most important work in my life,” Dr. Alan Peterson said.

Alan Peterson, Ph.D., is a psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor at UT Health San Antonio. He is also director of the STRONG STAR Consortium, a state and federally-funded research group addressing PTSD and led by UT Health San Antonio, as well as CAP -- the Consortium to Alleviate PTSD -- under the leadership of UT Health San Antonio and the VA’s National Center for PTSD.

As a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Peterson knows all too well about service men and women dealing with combat-related PTSD.

“Really seeing the kind of the horrors of war with traumatic brain injury and many severe psychological, physical injuries -- I knew we had to do something,” he said.

Peterson and scientists across the country worked together on this study to utilize old tools in new ways.

“Prolonged exposure. It’s normally done with a single treatment session once a week over, you know, two or three or four months,” Peterson said.

This technique is more intensive, with two different arms to the study.

According to the paper published on JAMA Network, “The interventions were massed-PE, which included 15 therapy sessions of 90 minutes each over 3 weeks, vs intensive outpatient program PE (IOP-PE), which included 15 full-day therapy sessions over 3 weeks with 8 treatment augmentations.”

Peterson said, “This the first study ever that has actually taken this approach. Let’s assess the top three traumas and then kind of focus on the least distressing trauma, the second most distressing, and then finally get to the most distressing trauma.”

Tabatha Blount, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UT Health San Antonio. A clinical psychologist, she serves/has served as a research therapist on several STRONG STAR and CAP clinical trials, including the currently published study.

Blount regularly works with service members receiving treatment for PTSD and knows how isolating the battle can be.

“What this treatment does for a lot of people is it expands the hope so that they can continue to live. And as you live, more PTSD takes up less space in your life,” Blount said.

This clinical trial had a 75% success rate, with over 200 service members participating.

Similar studies show there is little chance of relapsing symptoms, even over 10 years.

But the work isn’t done, as this isn’t a cure for PTSD.

“We keep the needle moving, you know, pushing the envelope further and further to get better outcomes,” Peterson said.

They’re making sure no one is left behind.

“The next step is to figure out the other 25%. Like, I don’t think it’s good enough to end here,” Blount said.

Other clinical studies will be done because they haven’t reached a 100% success rate yet in treating PTSD.

You can find information on those studies here.

About the Authors:

Leigh Waldman is a news reporter at KSAT 12. She joined the station in 2021. Leigh comes to San Antonio from the Midwest after spending time at a station in Omaha, NE. After two winters there, she knew it was time to come home to Texas. When Leigh is not at work, she enjoys eating, playing with her dogs and spending time with family.

Gavin Nesbitt is a photojournalist and video editor who joined KSAT in September 2021. He has traveled across the great state of Texas to film, conduct interviews and edit many major news stories, including the White Settlement church shooting, Hurricane Hanna, 2020 presidential campaigns, Texas border coverage and the Spurs.