Study eyes PTSD among public safety personnel

Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry researcher Ruth Lanius poses in a hallway

Paul Mayne//Western NewsSchulich School of Medicine and Dentistry researcher Ruth Lanius, along with co-lead investigator Margaret McKinnon of McMaster University, received $990,000 over three years from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to undercover a new approach to treating public safety personnel with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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Researchers at Western and McMaster universities look to offer hope to public safety personnel suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of a life spent on the front lines of major crises, like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Western researcher Ruth Lanius and McMaster researcher Margaret McKinnon received $990,000 over three years to undercover new treatments leading to better quality of life for these individuals.

The study will focus on the effectiveness of a cognitive remediation strategy called Goal Management Training aimed at improving cognitive functioning among public safety personnel with PTSD. Researchers will examine changes in everyday functional outcomes (like the ability to return to work), as well as in brain structure and function using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Previous research concerning the effects of trauma exposure among public safety personnel focused primarily on its emotional consequences, such as increased irritability or hypervigilance. Little attention was paid to the effects of trauma exposure on cognition and functioning.

“Many studies to date just look at PTSD symptoms in response to treatment, especially how those symptoms have decreased. Very few studies to date have actually looked at real-world functioning,” said Lanius, a Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor and Director of the PTSD Research Unit at Western.

Actual functioning includes how quickly an individual can process new information at work; their ability to stay focused on a task and avoid making absentminded slips; and how well they remember information, such as the location of items, both at work or home.

Lanius continued, “This can be something as simple as making a recipe to as complex as stopping and thinking before making a careless remark to a family member. Some aspects of functioning may be undervalued by treatment providers but highly valued by patients with PTSD.”

Margaret McKinnon of McMaster University poses seated and smiling

For the study, public safety personnel include first responders like nurses, firefighters, police, and paramedics, search and rescue volunteers, as well as correctional services officers, border services officers, operational intelligence analysts, Indigenous emergency managers, and others working in the field, including those currently responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What’s really novel about this approach is that we’ll be imaging the brain before and after the treatment, so we can get a sense of not only any potential changes in the structure of the brain as a result of treatment but also any changes in the way the brain functions,” McKinnon said.

“It is powerful to be able to offer hope to public safety personnel affected by PTSD. They are dedicating their lives to society by working on the front lines, so it is important to be able to give back.”

Participants will be recruited from locations across Ontario, among which include London Health Sciences Centre in London, St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, and Homewood Health Centre in Guelph.