A short burst of aerobic exercise is believed to boost a molecule in the brain that is crucial for learning to feel safe.
Exposure therapy is one of the leading treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but about half of patients do not respond to it.
But a study now led by UNSW Sydney psychologists has found that increasing therapy with 10 minutes of aerobic exercise led patients to report greater reductions in PTSD symptom severity six months after nine weeks of treatment ended.
In the first known single-blind randomized controlled trial of its kind, researchers in Sydney recruited 130 adults with clinically diagnosed PTSD and assigned them to two groups. People in both groups received nine 90-minute sessions of exposure therapy. At the end of each session, a group was given 10 minutes of aerobic exercise, while the control group members were given 10 minutes of passive stretching.
People in the aerobic exercise group reported lower severity of PTSD symptoms, on average – as measured by: CAPS-2 scale – more than those who received exposure therapy enhanced with stretching exercises at six-month follow-up. Interestingly, there was no clear difference between the two groups one week after the treatment program ended, suggesting that benefits take time to develop.
Findings announced overnight Lancet Psychiatry.
learning to disappear
Scientia Professor Richard Bryant oversaw the clinical research conducted between 2012 and 2018. He says the goal of exposure therapy in the treatment of PTSD is extinction learning, where a patient learns to associate an emotion with something they have hitherto associated with trauma. security.
For example, a person who has been subjected to sexual violence may experience some stimuli present at the time of the trauma, for example, night time, sexual activity, the smell of aftershave, etc. can associate with. – with threat. Exposure therapy would focus on these triggers and try to show that they pose no threat, in the hope that after repeated, gradual exposure, extinction learning will be implanted in the sufferer’s brain.
prof. «Learning to disappear is not forgetting a bad experience,» says Bryant. “A new learning that blocks old learning.
«Past research has shown that very short aerobic exercises can be beneficial as they actually promote extinction learning in mice, and have also been shown to promote it in humans under experimental conditions.»
However, the theory has not been tested in clinical conditions until now. Bryant and colleagues say they think that short, intense exercise promotes a specific growth molecule in the brain called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or BDNF.
«The reason this is really important is because it actually promotes synaptic plasticity in the brain, which is really important for learning. And we know that this is the basis of extinction learning. So if we can make this BDNF more active in the brain during exposure therapy, in theory, that’s better. It will lead to extinction.”
More work needed
prof. To Bryant’s knowledge, this is the first time the benefits of aerobic exercise combined with exposure therapy have been observed in a clinical setting. But while she was pleasantly surprised by the results, she says the study would need to be repeated several times before this therapy tweak is recommended, standard practice, or used to treat other psychological conditions.
«I really want to stress that this is the first trial to show this in an anxiety disorder and I don’t think we should get too excited about it,» he says.
“But as with all these things, you always need more than one try to really believe it. So I’m definitely not telling people to start running and exercising after your exposure therapy, because I think it’s early after a try. But having said that, that’s very encouraging. .
prof. Bryant says it’s a major trial, a replica of the method currently taking place in Melbourne, that he and his colleagues will watch with interest.
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