Conference Coverage

New PTSD prevention guidelines released

Hydrocortisone is only drug rated as an ‘intervention with emerging evidence of efficacy’



– New evidence-based guidelines on posttraumatic stress disorder prevention and treatment from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) highlight an uncomfortable truth: Namely, the basis for early formal intervention of any sort is sorely lacking.

Dr. Jonathan Bisson,professor of psychiatry at Cardiff University Bruce Jancin/MDedge News

Dr. Jonathan Bisson

“I’m acutely aware that a lot of people in the mental health field are not aware of the evidence base as it stands at the moment,” Jonathan I. Bisson, MD, said at the annual congress of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology. “There’s something very human about trying to do something. I think we find it very hard to do nothing following a traumatic event.”

Dr. Bisson, a professor of psychiatry at Cardiff (Wales) University and the chair of the ISTSS guidelines committee, provided an advance look at the ISTSS guidelines, which have since been released.

Secondary prevention of PTSD can entail either blocking development of symptoms after exposure to trauma or treating early emergent PTSD symptoms. Dr. Bisson emphasized that, although multiple exciting prospects are on the horizon for secondary prevention, those interventions need further work before implementation. The ISTSS guidelines, based on the group’s meta-analyses of 361 randomized controlled trials, rated most of the diverse psychosocial, psychological, and pharmacologic interventions that have been proposed or are now actually being used in clinical practice as either “low effect,” “interventions with emerging evidence,” or “insufficient evidence to recommend.” Those interventions are not backed by sufficient evidence of efficacy to be ready for prime time use in clinical practice.

Morever, the potential for iatrogenic harm is very real.

“When we’re considering intervening with somebody, then clearly, we’ve got to be very, very careful because we know that an awful lot of the distress immediately after a traumatic event can be a normal response to a trauma,” the psychiatrist observed. “It’s normal to cry after a bereavement, for example. But should we be pathologizing that, or is that the body’s way of actually bringing itself to terms with something that’s very extreme?

“So we’ve got to be careful in our efforts to shape emotional processing, which might do absolutely nothing – which I’d argue is a problem when we’ve got limited resources because we should be focusing those resources on things that make a difference. Or it could minimize or prevent prolonged distress or pathology, which is what we’re after. Or it could interfere with the adaptive acute stress response – and that’s a real problem and one we’ve got to be very careful about,” Dr. Bisson said. “So ‘primum non nocere’ – first do no harm – should be a principle we adhere to.”

Neurobiology of PTSD

The accepted view of the neurobiology of PTSD is that it represents a failure of the medial prefrontal/anterior cingulate network to regulate activity in the amygdala, with resultant hyperreactivity to threat. Enhanced negative feedback of cortisol occurs. The brain’s response to low cortisol is to increase levels of corticotropin-releasing factor, which has the unwanted consequence of increased locus coeruleus activity and noradrenaline release. The resultant adrenergic surge facilitates the laying down and consolidation of traumatic memories.


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