A new study led by the University of New South Wales (UNSW Sydney) has found that a short burst of aerobic exercise can boost the effect of exposure therapy, helping reduce the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
According to the study published Thursday in the Lancet Psychiatry journal, augmenting the therapy with 10 minutes of aerobic exercise has led to patients reporting a greater reduction in PTSD symptom severity six months after the nine-week treatment ended.
The research team conducted a single-blind, parallel, randomized controlled trial involving 130 adults with clinically diagnosed PTSD in Sydney.
After receiving nine 90-minute exposure therapy sessions, one group of participants was put through 10 minutes of aerobic exercises, while the control group was given 10 minutes of passive stretching.
Trial results showed that people in the aerobic exercise group on average reported lower severity of PTSD symptoms, as measured on the CAPS-2 (an essential synaptic vesicle priming protein) scale, at the six-month follow-up.
The study also noted that there were no clear differences between the two groups one week after the treatment program ended, suggesting the benefits take time to develop.
The goal of exposure therapy in treating PTSD is extinction learning, where a patient learns to equate something that they have associated with the trauma, with a feeling of safety, said Richard Bryant, lead author and professor from the UNSW Sydney.
The psychology expert pointed out that brief, intense exercise promotes a particular growth molecule in the brain called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF).
“It actually promotes synaptic plasticity in the brain, which is really important for learning. And we know that this underpins extinction learning. So if we can get this BDNF more active in the brain, at the time of exposure therapy, theoretically, that should lead to better extinction,” he added.
Despite the encouraging results, Bryant also stressed that the study needs to be replicated a number of times before this therapy tweak is recommended or used to treat other psychological conditions. ■