PTSD Interview: Kerry Ressler

Andrew Kahn
July 12, 2013

Dana Alliance member Kerry Ressler, M.D., Ph.D., became interested in post-traumatic stress disorder not because he believed it posed the greatest challenge for psychiatrists, but because he felt they were close to answers. “It’s the area in psychiatry that we best understand the neural circuitry and it’s the only mental disorder that we [can pinpoint] where it starts,” he says. “It’s solvable.”

This is good news, especially considering a recent study found that nearly one in four stroke patients experience PTSD within a year after the stroke. Ressler, a professor at Emory and the co-director of the Trauma Clinic at Fulton County Community Mental Health Center, says the take-home message from that study is that PTSD can affect anyone, not just military members. “Our primary research for the last decade has focused on highly-traumatized inner city civilian patients as a cohort that is at very high risk for PTSD. It is an underappreciated and undertreated population.” He adds that while as many as 30 percent of the mentally ill population have PTSD, only 10-11 percent are diagnosed with PTSD.

Ressler studies the genetic underpinnings of fear and anxiety disorders such as PTSD, phobias, and panic disorders. Understanding the neural circuitry associated with a particular behavior can lead to treatment or prevention. And he believes PTSD can be prevented. He co-authored a study in Science Translational Medicine in which mice were subjected to a terrifying experience but exhibited few signs of PTSD thanks to a drug, SR-8993, that blocked the fearful memory. It was published in June during PTSD Awareness Month. Forbes and National Geographic, among others, reported on the study. From the NatGeo story:

There are lots of reasons to be excited about these findings. Human and mouse data seem to agree, for one thing, and the previous studies showing the beneficial effects of morphine on traumatized individuals lend credence to the whole idea. But Ressler, who’s been studying the devastating effects of PTSD for a long time, isn’t ready to beat the drum for SR-8993. “Until replication studies are performed I don’t want to be overly enthusiastic,” he says.

He also doesn’t want people to forget about the already available treatments for PTSD, namely psychotherapy, which has been proven to help many people with the disorder. “It is important for people to know that PTSD is understandable as a brain illness and is treatable,” he says.