Post-traumatic stress disorder: Exploring and understanding the disorder in order to develop treatment

Professor Soraya Seedat, SARChI Chair in Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Department of Psychiatry, Stellenbosch University

Post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD, is a chronic, serious and debilitating psychiatric disorder that occurs following exposure to life-threatening traumatic events (such as rape, physical assault, domestic violence and hijackings). The programme has hosted approximately five masters and five PhD students per year and, to date, seven Masters graduates and one PhD graduate have completed their research projects within this programme.

One of Professor Seedat’s current PhD students recently won the prestigious Novartis Internship in Drug Discovery and Clinical Research and will spend several months at Novartis (Basel, Switzerland) this year focusing on gene expression and epigenetics to facilitate work on her PhD.

The Chair in PTSD has a strong gene-brain-behaviour research focus, and aims to identify – through state-of the art genetic and brain imaging methods — genetic, biological and environmental factors that are contributory to increasing or decreasing a person’s risk for developing PTSD once he or she has been exposed to trauma.

Funding provided to the SARChI Chair has been instrumental in supporting a host of Professor Seedat’s projects and has contributed to the numerous scientific publications (numbering more than 180) on PTSD and other aspects of psychiatry that she has authored, primarily in international peer-reviewed journals.

The Chair, she says, has provided ‘dedicated funding to harness the scientific creativity and potential of young researchers and students from both basic science and clinical science backgrounds who have an interest in understanding trauma/PTSD and improving the burdens imposed by it’.

Projects, conducted in collaboration with local and international partners, span a wide spectrum and include investigation of brain changes in adolescents exposed to violent traumas and in HIV-infected women with early childhood trauma, and investigation of the effectiveness of prevention interventions in trauma-exposed, drinking mothers at high risk for producing children with foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs).

Targeted community-based prevention efforts in women and their families, who are affected by domestic violence in endemic proportions, are imperative as they have a major impact in reducing this scourge.

In addition, anxiety disorders in general (of which PTSD constitutes one such disorder), and violent trauma in particular, have significant negative psychological, social and economic impacts on South African society and the Chair has been critical in allowing for a focused programme of activity into the early detection and management of trauma, PTSD and its sequelae.

This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian newspaper as an advertorial supplement

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