The Mental Health Minute

Articles and news about mental health issues

Canadian scientist examines war vets’ nightmares

This is a really great article about new research being done for the war veterans who suffer from PTSD.  This disorder is frightening and debilitating for the person who experiences it.  As with all disorders, these symptoms can be mild to severe with no understandable reason for the difference between people.  Each person’s experience is different and presents unique to that individual.  It is time for the research community as a whole to address this terrible effect our soldiers bring home with them, especially now when the numbers of returning veterans is so high.

It is my hope that this research brings some type of peace to these people who have suffered so much for all of us.


Cpl. Sylvain Chartrand (L), a reservist pictured in Bosnia in 1993 at the age of 23. Chartrand suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Cpl. Sylvain Chartrand (L), a reservist pictured in Bosnia in 1993 at the age of 23. Chartrand suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.>

Photograph by: Photo Handout, Sylvain Chartrand

Sometimes, when Cpl. Sylvain Chartrand tries to sleep, he sees a woman and girl fleeing from rising flames.

A reservist who went to Bosnia in 1993, Chartrand remembers witnessing many things he does not wish to relive: the dead, the hostages and that little girl who cannot keep up with her mother as the village behind them burns to the ground.

After spending six months overseas, Chartrand said he showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, a form of psychological distress that follows a traumatic event. Diagnosed with PTSD in 2005, he has been prescribed 28 different medications — none of which has helped alleviate his nightmares.

“The biggest problem is really never having a restful night,” said Chartrand, 41, who lives in Montreal. “Not being able to sleep for 15 years, it’s pretty bad.”

The father of two is still in the military, but hasn’t worked his high-tech job for four years.

“You have no energy, you’re always tired,” he said. “So if you’re always tired, you can’t do much.”

Now, a research project headed by a Canadian scientist will for the first time study the brain to find out why people have sleep-related problems, such as repetitive nightmares, which are associated with PTSD.

And solving the sleep problem may have broader implications for treating other symptoms of the illness, such as depression and anxiety, say the project’s researchers, who are from the University of Pittsburgh.

“What we’re trying to achieve is to better understand the sleeping brain in people with PTSD, so that we can use that information to develop or use treatments that we know have an impact on what is actually altered in the dreaming brains,” said Anne Germain, the study’s lead researcher and psychiatry professor, who is originally from Quebec.

“If we can have treatments that also focus on sleep, maybe we can have treatments that are much more effective for PTSD as a whole.”

She said findings could also be applied to Canadian veterans.

Although sleep problems have been treated as a symptom of PTSD, Germain said it has never been the main concern in spite of its mitigating effect on everything else.

“So far, the treatments of PTSD exclusively focus on how we feel during the day, and the intrusive images and thoughts and the hyper-arousal (anxiety) that comes with it. They completely ignore the other half, which is the sleep part,” she said. “When we treat nightmares in people with PTSD, daytime symptoms are significantly improved.”

The project, called the Veterans Sleep Study, involves four separate studies which focus on the brain during sleep. Two of the studies compare the brains of people with PTSD and those without it during rapid eye movement — the cycle of sleep in which we have our most vivid, detailed dreams.

Participants, who are veterans between 25 and 60 years old, sleep in a local hospital laboratory overnight. When they enter REM sleep, typically about 90 minutes in, a sugary dye is injected into their brains.

“The parts of the brain that are more active will use more glucose, because it’s really the fuel for the brain cells,” said Germain. A brain scan can then identify the active part of the brain.

“We’re trying to understand, basically, what’s the brain basis for nightmares,” said Germain. “We just don’t know what goes wrong in the brain — what becomes too active, or not active enough — to allow those repetitive nightmares.”

According to Veterans Affairs Canada, up to 10 per cent of war-zone veterans will experience PTSD. Others may have some of the symptoms associated with the condition.

Canada’s current combat mission in Afghanistan is set to finish in 2011, with Canadian military personnel having completed just under 30,000 overseas tours, sometimes more than once.

According to a Commons committee report from November 2009, it is estimated that some 3,600 Afghanistan veterans could develop mental-health problems, including 1,600 with PTSD.

In the U.S., one in six soldiers who serve overseas show significant symptoms of PTSD or the full-blown disorder, said Germain.

Symptoms also may include flashbacks, withdrawal, hyper-activity, and drug and alcohol abuse.

Germain said that studies have shown PTSD treatments only work for 60 per cent of people. They range from psychotherapy to medications for depression, anxiety and insomnia. Other more innovative techniques, such as image rehearsal therapy, focus on training the brain to overcome nightmares by practising new dreams during the day.

Germain hopes the studies — which also compare sleeping brains between people who have used the blood pressure drug Prazosin, which has been proven to help PTSD symptoms — will have preliminary findings by the end of this year.

It is being funded in part by the United States Defense Department and the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.

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January 13, 2010 - Posted by | Mental Health | , , , , , , ,

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