Nigel Ellway in conversation with two ‘brainy’ specialists
Walking up Tottenham Court Road away from the University College London’s Torrington Place campus I passed two homeless men, one of whom clearly had psychological issues and guiltily I hurried past.
The irony of this encounter is that I had just spent a couple of hours discussing the development of an antidote for post traumatic stress disorder – more commonly described as PTSD.
Most people will have some idea of what PTSD is and what causes it – and will often incorrectly associate it solely with service personnel.
Although not all trauma victims succumb to the disorder – and some people who are only tangentially linked to a traumatic event may get it – it occurs across the demographic spectrum. Of those exposed to trauma between 5-7 % will develop PTSD.
It was the day after Parliament had risen for the general election and I was meeting with Prof Sunjeev Kamboj and Vanessa Hennessy of the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Treatment Development Project at University College London, one of the research projects currently being supported and funded by the Sir Bobby Charlton foundation for Victims of Conflict.
I began by asking them how they would describe themselves. Experimental psycho-pharmacologists came back the startling reply.
“We examine how drugs affect brain processes.” Vanessa explained. “PTSD is an emotional response to the memory of one or more particular traumatic incidents. What we are doing is using medication to moderate that memory by reducing its emotional intensity.”
Prof Sunjeev continued “We are not primarily developing psychological treatments; we are developing medical strategies for a psychological disorder.”
“Unlike other psychological disorders there is a known trigger for PTSD, and this gives us the opportunity to deliver treatment very shortly after the time of trauma.”
I wanted to know what had prompted them to take this line of research:
Prof Sunjeev has been working at University College London since his student days. For some years he had been examining how particular existing medications could be used in psychological disorders and in 2013 began focussing on PTSD: Primarily because most treatments for PTSD were not particularly effective and some are not acceptable to patients.
Vanessa Hennessy’s research had been on the correlation between stress and sex hormones in women, and how trauma could have very different impacts depending on hormonal levels .
As a journalist I have always loved making connections between ostensibly different story lines that then led into a whole new line of inquiry – and this is how I felt Sunjeev and Vanessa had come together.
“So why did you team up with the Sir Bobby Charlton Foundation?”
The reaction was now familiar.
“They have been fantastic!” they enthused. “We knew that our research could lead to something that would seriously help people impacted by conflict. PTSD is a debilitating disorder that can keep people from living full and rewarding lives. If we can find a treatment it is one step closer to helping deliver sustainable development goals focussing on rebuilding countries post conflict.”
“The Sir Bobby Charlton Foundation really get what we’re trying to achieve.” Vanessa’s enthusiasm was tangible, “I had known about their work for a while so we held some initial conversations about what the victims of conflict needed in medical support and how our work fitted into the wider picture. We applied to them for funding for three years research and were delighted to get it!”
Prof Sunjeev continued: “The Sir Bobby Charlton Foundation is unlike other funders.” A message I had heard not that long ago in Glasgow: “They let us get on with things, they are understanding and supportive.”
“What about the pharmaceutical industry?” I asked, “Do you get any support from them?”
Prof Sunjeev looked sorrowful: “Sadly not. We can’t seem to get them enthusiastic about this – perhaps because we are using medications that have already been developed.”
Reverting back to the project I wanted to know more about the mechanics.
“What other studies are being done?” I asked.
Vanessa answered first: “Most PTSD studies have been done with men – mainly in military context. We wanted to look at the impact on women – and focus on the civilian context.
“Behaviour can be very different in each of these contexts and also very different at individual level. However PTSD does have very distinctive key behavioural markers for the disorder.
“We do not work with actual sufferers – our methodology is to use carefully screened volunteers with no history of trauma, we then show them an exceptionally upsetting clip from a movie. We administer the medication and after another short interval ask them to answer questionnaires on their reaction to the movie clip.
“We are still at an early stage of research” continued Prof Sunjeev. “One of our colleagues is running a parallel study involving ‘sub-clinical’ subjects who show evidence of distress about a past event but have not been clinically diagnosed but it will be at least another three years before we can start clinical trials working with the NHS.”
I asked about delivery of the medication in the field.
“It would be practically impossible to administer any medication to civilians immediately at the time of trauma, but we can certainly get it administered through hospitals and clinics quite soon afterwards. Even though not all patients will develop PTSD, we would administer it to all just in case but we’ve still got some way still to go before any drugs can be fully tested, licensed and delivered” said Sunjeev.
“So what are the main challenges?” I asked.
“At the moment our main challenge is getting appropriate volunteers to run tests on – we advertise in the university and on various websites – but not everyone is suitable. We also have to meet the university’s very stringent ethical conditions” replied Vanessa.
By this stage my mind was whirring – from the physical treatment bone replacement scheme in Glasgow; to the medical prevention of PTSD in London; to the physiotherapy and psychological work I saw being delivered in Jordan – each one was just one piece in the jigsaw of building people’s lives back after conflict.
The Sir Bobby Charlton Foundation I was discovering was at the centre of making sense of the jigsaw. I look forward to discovering more pieces as I discover more of their work around the globe.