10-minute bursts of exercise may boost therapy for PTSD

Studies continue to illuminate the wide-ranging benefits of physical activity when it comes to brain health, and new research has shown how that might include treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Scientists have explored how short bursts of aerobic exercise can augment an existing behavioral therapy used to treat the condition, and demonstrated that it may help alleviate symptoms by boosting plasticity in the brain.

Though physical activity is generally understood to be good for us, we’ve recently seen scientists really drill into the way it improves brain health and cognitive function. This includes studies showing that exercise can protect against age-relative cognitive decline, battle depression and positively influence brain plasticity and learning.

Researchers at Australia’s University of New South Wales sought to investigate how this might pertain to what’s known as extinction learning for sufferers of PTSD. This forms a key pillar of exposure therapy, in which patients that associate certain stimuli with a traumatic experience, such as certain smells or environments, are carefully exposed to these triggers to gradually associate them with safety instead.

“Extinction learning is not unlearning the bad experience,” said Professor Richard Bryant who led the research. “It’s a new learning that inhibits the old learning. Past studies have shown that very brief bouts of aerobic exercise can be helpful because they actually promote extinction learning in rats, and have also been shown to promote it in humans under experimental conditions.”

Bryant and the team set up experiments to test this idea out in a clinical setting. One hundred and thirty adults with PTSD were enlisted and split into two groups, both of which underwent nine exposure therapy sessions lasting 90 minutes each. One group also underwent a 10-minute session of aerobic exercise afterwards, while the other completed a 10-minute passive stretching session.

One week after the treatment had concluded, the scientists observed no difference between the two groups in terms of severity of PTSD symptoms. At a six-month follow-up, however, the group that completed the aerobic exercise sessions exhibited greater reduction in their symptoms than the stretching group. This suggests the benefits take some time to take hold, and the scientists believe it may be through an increases of a molecule called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which research has shown to be promoted through physical activity.

“Why that’s really important is it actually promotes synaptic plasticity in the brain, which is really important for learning,” said Bryant. “And we know that this underpins extinction learning. So if we can get this BDNF more active in the brain, at the time of exposure therapy, theoretically, that should lead to better extinction.”

According to the team, this is the first time these types of results have been observed in a clinical setting, though they urge caution given the early state of the research and the small nature of the study. A larger trial is currently underway exploring the potential of aerobic exercise to augment exposure therapy for PTSD, and although there is a long way to go before the technique enters clinical use, the team sees the results as encouraging.

“’I’d really like to emphasize that this is the first trial that’s shown this in an anxiety disorder and I don’t think we should get too excited by it,” said Bryant. “But as with all of these things, you always need multiple trials to actually have any faith in it. So I’m certainly not telling people to run out and start doing exercise after all your exposure therapy, because I think it’s premature after one trial. But having said that, this is very encouraging.”

The research was published in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry.

Source: University of New South Wales

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