MIT is Working on a Vaccine for PTSD

Researchers discovered a hormone that makes the brain more vulnerable to traumatic events.

MIT Great Dome image via Shutterstock

MIT Dome image via Shutterstock

At the Mission Gratitude event that was held in September to raise money for the Home Base Program, an organization that helps veterans and their families affected by combat or deployment-related stress and injuries like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a soldier took the stage to talk about his experiences at war and with the “disorder.” He asked the crowd of more than 200 to “drop the D” because, he said, calling PTSD a “disorder” gives soldiers and other people affected another reason to not seek out help or open up about their trauma.

PTSD affects about 7.7 million American adults, including soldiers and victims of crimes, accidents, or natural disasters. MIT researcher Retsina Meyer says that about 40 to 50 percent of patients recover within five years, but the rest never get better. That’s why Meyer and her team are working to change that.

A little more than a decade ago, scientists discovered that a hormone called ghrelin enhances appetite. Dubbed the “hunger hormone,” ghrelin was quickly targeted by drug companies seeking treatments for obesity — but none have yet panned out. MIT neuroscientists, however, have discovered that ghrelin, released during chronic stress, can also make the brain more vulnerable to traumatic events, which MIT suggests may predispose people to PTSD.

Drugs that reduce ghrelin levels could help protect people who are at high risk for PTSD, such as soldiers serving in war, says Ki Goosens, an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT and a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Goosens is the senior author of a paper describing the findings in the journal Molecular Psychiatry. “Perhaps we could give people who are going to be deployed into an active combat zone a ghrelin vaccine before they go, so they will have a lower incidence of PTSD. That’s exciting because right now there’s nothing given to people to prevent PTSD,” she says. “When you have people with a history of stress who encounter a traumatic event, they are more likely to develop PTSD because that history of stress has altered something about their biology. They have an excessively strong memory of the traumatic event, and that is one of the things that drives their PTSD symptoms.”

So how exactly can this help people with PTSD? Goosens tells Discovery:

“You would get a shot, and for a year it would lower your ghrelin levels,” said Ki Gossens, assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, and an author of the paper in the journal Molecular Psychiatry. “When you were deployed and exposed to the stress of combat, your ghrelin levels would go up and the vaccine would combat that. That should reduce the incidence of PTSD. Right now, we don’t have anything to prevent it.” When rats were exposed to chronic stress over a prolonged period, their circulating ghrelin and amygdalar growth hormone levels also went up, and fearful memories were encoded more strongly. This is similar to what the researchers believe happens in people who suffer from PTSD, she says.

Meyer says that the persistent elevation of ghrelin following trauma exposure could be one of the factors that maintain PTSD. “So, could you immediately reverse PTSD? Maybe not, but maybe the ghrelin could get damped down and these people could go through cognitive behavioral therapy, and over time, maybe we can reverse it,” she says.

Working with researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Goosens’ lab is now planning to study ghrelin levels in human patients suffering from anxiety and fear disorders. They are also planning a clinical trial of a drug that blocks ghrelin to see if it can prevent relapse of depression.

  • RM

    Thank you for the press, Boston Magazine!

    I am very excited for my work to finally be published for the scientific
    community in Molecular Psychiatry and exhilarated for the press, like yours, that will hopefully make it accessible to a wider audience!

    If you or your readers would like to know more, the primary article is open access and can be found here:

    Retsina Meyer, PhD
    Neuroscience | MIT ’13

    • Penny kimball

      I Thank you also Boston Magazine!I believe this is great news too anyone who suffers from Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder..It might not only educate people on how severe PTSD can effect ones life.It’s not emotions they are normal however it’s the triggers,fear,and not being able to stay in the present which causes ones life to crumble & often causes many hospitalizations &often death..I believe it’s worth trying.

  • Jo Post

    So you’re just going to numb up people and erase their fight or flight response? Brilliant! Zombie Soldiers — I’ll pass thank you. Normal emotions aren’t meant to be “shot” away just for Big Pharma to make another dang dollar.

    • rr

      did you read the article at all?

      why don’t you go back, take the time to actually read the article, see what the vaccine really is, because it’s not saying what you’re saying its saying.

      it’s saying it prevents PTSD, not fear. it doesn’t shoot away emotion. it aids, with the addition of cognitive behavioral therapy (which I assure you, is very human, not zombie at all), to lower the chances of developing permanent, chronic stress.

      PTSD is the permanence of extremely intense fear and stress. It is fear prolonged, lasting long after the disaster is over. this permanence is a result of hormones.

      I live with PTSD and I can tell you, if you don’t want zombie soldiers, you want soldiers who DON’T suffer from PTSD. PTSD makes Zombies out of men. PTSD gives people to suicidal urges, even if they don’t want to kill themselves. PTSD makes people so depressed, they can become catatonic, which if you’ve ever seen or experienced, is very “zombie-like.”

      This vaccine may prevent that zombie-likeness.

      this vaccine is not, if you had read what they were saying, something that “erases fear” or “erases emotion.”

  • alena

    Yea this is a ridiculous concept even and the people working on it most
    have no idea about the military so I am going to just give a little insight:
    first we can’t be fearless – that gut instinct that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up or your adrenalin rush – makes you more alert to your surroundings, it makes you take cover, you start listening closer to everything. When you are deployed you need fear to keep you on your toes that is what keeps you prepared all the time and compliant and alive. You lose the fear and you will lose your life because your head won’t be in the fight it will be somewhere else or you will be thinking you are superman – which is it! Besides that you want to give them the vaccine before they deploy to keep the stress down a year – most cases of PTSD issues occur after they return home from deployment not while they are deployed. Soldiers already have weight problems and you are going to give them something that makes their appetite increase. How will it affect females of childbearing age? I think that the people that came up with this had a great idea but they don’t know enough about the military.

    • Penny kimball

      Well I am pleased that victims of horrible violence & suffer years with PTSD along with flash-backs,fear and fighting everyday that maybe this will bring hope for a easier tomorrow..

    • rr

      PTSD vaccine is not saying they’re trying to make super soldiers who don’t get scared. It’s saying the vaccine will prevent that feeling of despair, fear, disassociation, from becoming permanent (which is what PTSD is).

      The vaccine makes their appetite DECREASE, btw, not increase, so you didn’t even read this article correctly. ghrelin is the hormone that increases appetite. During chronic stress, the body releases more ghrelin, which increases appetite. Therefore, a vaccine that lowers ghrelin, which is what this vaccine is, would theoretically DECREASE appetite.

      HOWEVER, again, if you have taken the like two minutes to read this extremely short article you’d already know this, the pharma companies tried to make a drug that decreases appetite for weight loss by playing with ghrelin hormone but were unsuccessful. Therefore, the PTSD vaccine probably wouldn’t effect appetite much or else it would be marketed as a weight loss drug, which it is not being marketed as, because it isn’t effective in weight loss.

      I have PTSD, this vaccine is a wonderful concept. I don’t think you understand the biology behind feeling lost, I don’t think you understand why people suddenly have PTSD symptoms when they return from war, and I don’t think you understand mental illness or what its like to live with it or seek help with it. It’s not from people oppressing you and you just magically move on because you have a support group. Again, you didn’t even read the article, which said “with Cognitive Behavior Therapy,” not that the vaccine is a magic cure-all without any CBT or that it takes away your memories. Support groups and therapy are great, but if your body constantly produces high levels of cortistol, like its just stuck on cortisol production… it gets in the way of therapy. Your positive thinking bullshit is ignoring the biochemistry of stress.