UT Researchers: Running May Help Treat PTSD

The physical benefits of exercise, particularly running, have long been established. But researchers have begun to expand the understanding of mental benefits as well. In a study published in Cognitive Behavior Therapy this spring, UT researchers found that running could help alleviate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD).

The researchers were interested in levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a protein in the brain that aids in learning, neuronal differentiation, and survival instincts. Essentially, BDNF helps a person understand how to react to perceived danger. Those suffering from PTSD typically have low levels of BDNF, and the protein is shown to increase with exercise.

“We often say BDNF is to the brain what human growth hormone is to the body. It is important in regulating mood directly and also in helping people learn better,” says associate professor of psychology Mark Powers, an author on the study. “BDNF likely improves mood and anxiety alone but also can be used to enhance the learning that takes place in therapy for mood and anxiety disorders.”

In the study, one group of PTSD sufferers jogged for 30 minutes prior to therapy sessions, while the others did not exercise. Over time, researchers saw an increase of BDNF and a decrease of PTSD symptoms in the subjects who ran before their therapy sessions.

“Exercise efficiently increases BDNF and doesn’t have the side effects that medications do,” Powers says. “If we can increase BDNF, this should lead to the ability to tell the difference between a firecracker in the U.S. and a Scud missile attack in Iraq, improved memory for the safety learned during therapy, and reduced anxiety and mood symptoms.”

While UT is laying the foundation for further PTSD treatment, the authors of the study noted the need for a higher number of participants before any broad claims can be made. The University of Regina in Saskatchewan currently has a larger study underway, so more definite answers may be coming soon. For now, the work conducted at the university is opening doors and offering solutions for those suffering from PTSD.

“The findings will help us answer more questions about how effective each treatment is and the relative impact of treatment alone, exercise alone, or their combination,” Powers says.

Photo by Nicolas Alejandro on Flickr.


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