It’s a typical scene from a movie or TV show about war veterans who have been in battle and have returned home safe. Suddenly fireworks go off, and a veteran, mentally transported back to the battlefield, hits the dirt, ready for an incoming mortal threat, as the sound evokes traumatic memories of combat. Many studies have been done on reactions to trauma cues like these for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but people with PTSD also report suffering from other pervasive everyday issues.

Researchers Pilar Sanjuan, a research assistant professor at the UNM Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, & Addictions (CASAA), and Julia Stephen, a professor of Translational Neuroscience at the UNM Mind Research Network (MRN), along with their team, recently received an award for $475,751 from the National Institute of Mental Health to study people with PTSD in an effort to find solutions to the  not-so-well studied issues associated with PTSD. 

“Our goal for this study is to expand our knowledge about how the brain differs in people with PTSD, relative to those without PTSD to better guide treatment,” Sanjuan and Stephen said. 

Many prior studies have focused on how people with PTSD respond to fearful or threatening stimuli, but people with PTSD also report broader cognitive complaints, such as problems with concentration and attention. This study will examine how the brain responds to unexpected, but not threatening, stimuli. 

“Our hypothesis is that the brains of people with PTSD become over-reactive to novel stimuli, leading to larger-than-usual responses to non-threatening novel stimuli. If this hypothesis is correct, it may explain some of the PTSD-related concentration difficulties. Thus, treatment focused on reducing the larger-than-usual responses of people with PTSD in everyday scenarios may help improve the quality of life for those individuals beyond the current treatments that are available,” Sanjuan and Stephen explained.

 “We are seeking service members (veterans or active duty) who were deployed within the last 10 years. We are looking for individuals with or without PTSD, and also individuals who are unsure about their PTSD status. Participants will come to our offices and complete some interviews and memory activities and then receive two kinds of neuroimaging (research MRI and MEG scans)” Sanjuan and Stephen said.

Team participants are:

  • Pilar Sanjuan, Ph.D.: Principal investigator of the study. She is a clinical psychologist with expertise in PTSD and neuroimaging. 
  • Julia Stephen, Ph.D.: Principal investigator of the study. She is a physicist and the MEG Core Director at the Mind Research Network and has expertise in neuroimaging and clinical research.
  • Robert Thoma, Ph.D.: Co-investigator on the study. He is a neuropsychologist and will be overseeing the cognitive assessments and interpretation of cognitive results.
  • Gerardo Villarreal, M.D.: Co-investigator on the study. He is a Veterans Administration psychiatrist with expertise in PTSD. He will be helping with recruitment efforts and the clinical interpretation of results.
  • Tyrus Korecki: UNM student veteran. He will advise the rest of the research team about the needs and preferences of U.S. military service members and help organize and coordinate the community advisory panel. 
  • Melissa Henry, M.S., LMHC (NM): Licensed counselor and UNM graduate student. She will administer the PTSD assessments and assist with the general conduct of the study.
  • Dathan Gleichmann, study coordinator. He will conduct day-to-day administration of the study, schedule appointments, administer neuropsychological tests and other assessments, and guide the participants through the neuroimaging scans.

The project is currently funded for two years, but the findings may take longer to analyze and report. 

“In the short term, we seek to provide some answers for our service members, their health care providers, and the health science community at large about these PTSD-related memory and concentration problems that often impact so many parts of patients’ lives,” Sanjuan and Stephen said. “In the long term, by defining the mechanisms of PTSD (a complex mental health issue) and guiding the development of more targeted assessment (such as biomarkers) and interventions, we hope to increase treatment success rates.”

“We are both very excited about the potential of this research to help service members and others with PTSD. We are grateful to the National Institute of Mental Health for granting us the funding required for this research that aligns so well with UNM’s goals to support veteran and active duty staff and students,” they concluded.

Active duty and veteran service members deployed within the past 10 years interested in participating in the study should contact Gleichmann at 505-272-3304 or Interested callers should mention "Project Raptor" when calling or emailing. Individuals do not have to be diagnosed with PTSD to participate.