Although U.S. veterans experience PTSD at rates of up to 30 percent, there are no objective measures to help identify individuals with PTSD. A currently funded grant from the National Institutes of Health to The University of New Mexico is intended to address this gap.

The COVID-19 pandemic put a temporary break in recruitment efforts, but now researchers at UNM and the Mind Research Network are seeking participation from veterans in a study that will look at issues associated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Researchers are interested in speaking with veterans or active duty service members who have been deployed within the past 10 years and might be interested in participating in this research. They are looking for individuals who do not have PTSD as well as those who do have PTSD.

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 Mind Research Network (MRN), along with their team, 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

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.
  • Andrea Rodriguez, study coordinator. Rodriguez 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.

“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.”

Researchers have implemented comprehensive COVID-19 safety practices and procedures put forth by the University and the New Mexico Department of Health. Sanjuan said recent research shows PTSD cases are on the rise due to the pandemic, therefore, researchers are encouraging veterans, who have been impacted by COVID-19, to participate.

Those interested in participating in the study should contact Rodriguez at 505-221-6671 or email Individuals who are interested should also mention Project Raptor in their inquiry.