World-first brain training early intervention program to prevent PTSD in Australian military personnel transitioning into civilian life

In a world-first study, researchers from the University of Melbourne in collaboration with Open Arms, and the Departments of Veterans’ Affairs and Defence, have tested a very brief digital, brain training tool, and found it has the potential to act as an early intervention to prevent the development of posttraumatic stress disorder in Australian military personnel and veterans who are transitioning out of Defence into civilian life.


For a significant group of veterans leaving the military and transitioning to civilian life, increases their vulnerability to the development of PTSD and other mental health problems, with reported rates almost doubling over the course of the first five years following military separation. Until now, there has not been an effective tested prevention approach to PTSD developed in the context of this transition.


Veterans typically seek treatment for their PTSD many years after they have left the military, by which time they have been suffering for a long time,” says Professor Meaghan O’Donnell, from the Department of Psychiatry, University of Melbourne, and Head of Research, Phoenix Australia.


“So, while we have effective treatments for PTSD itself, the ‘holy grail’ for PTSD researchers has been to find an effective prevention approach, which could be delivered early on, to prevent many years of suffering. We want to get in early and effectively before PTSD develops.”


This search led Australian researchers to Israel, where a new computerised brain training program was being developed by Tel Aviv University in cooperation with the Israel Defense Forces Medical Corps. That program “dialed up” the brain to be more alert to threats on the battlefield, and researchers found it prevented the development of PTSD after being exposed to trauma, while still in active service. This training in threat detection is life saving in the military context, and here proved also to be protective from a mental health perspective.


The Australian team wondered if it would be possible to use this technology to reverse this effect, by “dialing down” attention to threat, that is reducing the bias in attention to threat back to neutral in transitioning would help veterans when they leave the military to adjust to civilian life.


While a very high level of attention to threat is necessary and life-saving on deployment, once an individual leaves the military and returns to civilian life, it can lead to the development of mental health problems,” says Dr Olivia Metcalf, Research Fellow at Phoenix Australia and one of the Australian researchers and behavioural scientist.


“It’s normal and adaptive to have some level of attention to threat – this keeps us safe in our environments. But the level needed on the battlefield is very different to the level needed in civilian life. So, we wondered if this training program could help re-calibrate the brain, so that the brain is processing threat at a level better suited to the civilian environment and improve mental health.”


Although the trial was terminated early due to COVID-19, the team was able to use the preliminary data to show not only significant reductions in posttraumatic stress symptoms in those who had them but critically also that while 24% of veterans who received the placebo attention training program went on to develop symptoms of PTSD, none of the veterans who received the attention training program did.


The findings are published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress.


“This is the first time this type of program has ever been tested in this way, to prevent the development of PTSD in veterans transitioning out of Defence,” says Professor David Forbes, Director of Phoenix Australia: Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health.


“While we still need large scale studies to confirm whether the use of this brain training program can reliability prevent the development of PTSD, particularly in transitioning veterans, the preliminary data from our study are very promising.”


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