A look at TAU’s groundbreaking research for preventing and treating PTSD

In Israel, where there is compulsory military service, the effects of PTSD are acute, with some 5-8% of combat soldiers experience a form of PTSD.

Prof. Yair Bar-Haim (photo credit: Courtesy)
Prof. Yair Bar-Haim
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A harrowing car accident that results in a near-death experience, dodging bullets during wartime and surviving sexual assault are just some of the myriad of events that can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder.
In Israel, where there is compulsory military service, the effects of PTSD are acute, with some 5-8% of combat soldiers experiencing a form of PTSD. During wartime, that figure rises to 15-20%, explained Prof. Yair Bar-Haim of Tel Aviv University’s (TAU) School of Psychological Sciences and the Sagol School of Neuroscience.
“These men are brothers, sons, fathers, bosses, co-workers,” Bar-Haim lamented. “We’re a small society, the impact is strong.”
Bar-Haim is a leading researcher in the university’s to-be-inaugurated National Center for Traumatic Stress and Resilience, which conducts breakthrough research determining how to treat and even prevent PTSD.
The center is to be a hub of innovation, devising methods to further understand the disorder and harnessing the knowledge of over 100 researchers across the TAU campus.
Their multidisciplinary research has already drawn attention from around the world, with foreign armies replicating the center’s studies so they, too, can assist their ailing soldiers.
“We have a substantive accumulation of knowledge and data to find the mechanism of the cause of the disorder and also devise effective treatments where we then test their efficacy in controlled clinical trials. We work on large scale prevention programs with the IDF, Australian and US armies. So many people look to our expertise around the world,” Bar-Haim said of a study that examined soldiers in the aftermath of 2014’s Operation Protective Edge.
Specifically, the US Army was impressed with a study that provided computerized training for soldiers so they would be able to attend better to threats during combat.
“We tried to devise computerized training protocols that helped soldiers pay attention to threats in combat environments. We found out in large-scale studies of soldiers that those who fail to pay attention to threats are at a greater risk of PTSD. So we created computer programs and tested them first in small samples of IDF troops, and with much larger samples,” he explained.
The research determined that PTSD can be reduced from 7.8% in non-trained infantry soldiers to 2.6% in soldiers who were trained with the computer programs before combat deployment.
“The US Army and Department of Defense noticed this effort and funded large-scale sets of studies, which came out very effective and thus, the US Army has worked to replicate our findings with the hope to incorporate these programs for their troops. So we now have very close relations with, of course, the IDF, but also with the US military, which helped finance some of the work that we do and we share it back with them,” he said of their joint efforts.
Subsequently, Australia’s secretary of veteran affairs visited TAU recently and will implement these methods for 2,000 Australian soldiers in a pilot study focusing on discharged veterans after their service in Afghanistan.
ALTHOUGH PTSD may be a common disorder depicted in the media, it is important to cut through any misconceptions and clearly state what this affliction entails.
Bar-Haim explains that PTSD is the only psychiatric disorder that has a perquisite: One must suffer “a traumatic event of high intensity and personal relevance that includes extreme threats on one’s life or close others,” he said.
PTSD can affect a wide swath of people – men or women, children or the elderly. Symptoms subside naturally with time for most, but the 5-10% who don’t recover suffer from chronic symptoms like flashbacks and nightmares that prevent them from living a functional and healthy life.
It is what Prof. Zahava Solomon, another leading TAU researcher, referred to as “cancer of the soul,” in an interview with Israel21C.
Solomon, who won an Israel Prize for her work and serves as head of the Israel Multidisciplinary Center of Excellence for Mass Trauma Research at TAU and is also affiliated with the university’s Bob Shapell School of Social Work, has followed prisoners of war from the Yom Kippur war for over 30 years and her research has revolutionized what we know about the disorder. She has also documented how Holocaust survivors process the trauma they experienced, proving that PTSD is non-discriminatory and can afflict people from all walks of life.
As such, when it comes to treatment of patients, TAU understands the need for a holistic and personalized approach as each individual processes trauma differently.
“Every person is a whole world, but there are commonalities. We try to find these mechanisms through extensive research,” Bar-Haim explained. “We have a lot of experience with providing customized treatment for patients. We produce large randomized controlled trials at TAU to test efficacy of new treatment protocols.”
TAU is fully committed to ensuring its university is the one-stop shop for treatment and prevention that the entire world can learn from and, as such, has plans to construct a state-of-the-art 2,000 square meter facility for the trauma center. The center will house research laboratories, clinical research facilities, a patient clinic and a large auditorium.
“The idea is to create a situation where clinical treatment and basic science are under the same roof,” Bar-Haim said. “When the patient comes in, research and treatment become seamless.”
“We have huge talent here on campus and we hope that once we put all this talent into one building we will really start breaking ground and have even greater impact if we have synergy,” he said.
This article was written in cooperation with Tel Aviv University.