Turning the volume down on PTSD
Alain Brunet understands only too well the impact of stress on the brain. As a clinical psychologist and researcher at Montreal’s Douglas Mental Health University Institute and Associate Professor at the Department of Psychiatry at McGill University, Dr. Brunet has dedicated his career to studying the impact of trauma on mental health. His main focus has been on characterizing the risk factors and developing effective treatments for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder otherwise known as PTSD. As such, he has become one of Canada’s top gurus in the treatment of the disorder and may understand better than anybody how debilitating PTSD can be.
PTSD, originally known as “shell shock”, is one of the most common disorders among soldiers, though it can occur in anyone who has suffered a high degree of trauma, including rape victims, battered women, abused children, and even emergency service personnel. Individuals with PTSD usually have disturbing intrusive memories, flashbacks, or nightmares of the trauma. According to Dr. Brunet, in some severe cases individuals are crippled by the memories; they won’t eat, socialize or leave their homes. When symptoms get to this point or are chronic, interventions are needed.
In an effort to help assess patients, Dr. Brunet developed the Peritraumatic Distress Inventory (PDI) in 2001. This was the first scale to evaluate the levels of distress experienced at the time of a traumatic event. Currently, the PDI is currently being utilized by more than 30 teams across the world and has been translated into eleven languages.
Dr. Brunet’s next breakthrough came when he and colleagues from McGill and Harvard used the common blood pressure drug, propranolol, to treat PTSD. Their findings showed that this drug reduces the intensity of the past experience and thereby relieves the PTSD. Further studies demonstrated that the strength of the memory was dampened by propranolol
Dr. Brunet’s work recently caught the eye of the U.S. Department of Defense, which is now funding Dr. Brunet and colleagues in Montreal, as well as teams in the United States and France, with $6.7-million to further evaluate this treatment. This success has landed Dr. Brunet with being sited as having made one of the top ten discoveries in 2008 by the journal Québec Science.
Dr. Brunet is no stranger to accolades. In 2006 he was named to the Maclean’s annual Honour roll as one of the 39 Canadians who make the world a better place to live and "Personality of the Week" by the Montreal newspaper La Presse. In addition to his academic titles, he is Editor in Chief of The International Journal of Victimology and President of the Traumatic Stress section of the Canadian Psychological Association.
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