A ground-breaking discovery could change the lives of those living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Annual Report 2019-20

Dr. Fang Liu’s research could lead to a treatment for PTSD

A research team led by Dr. Fang Liu has made a ground-breaking discovery that has the potential to treat and or even prevent Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is a mental health condition that's triggered by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. PTSD is prevalent in Canada, with studies suggesting that nearly one out of ten Canadians have PTSD at some point in their lives.

Dr. Liu’s research began because of a chance meeting with Dr. Kerry Ressler from Harvard, who was visiting CAMH to teach psychiatry residents at the invitation of Dr. Albert Wong. Dr. Ressler had previously published research about the role of genes encoding proteins play in the formation of fear memories. No one had an explanation for the mechanism underlying this genetic interaction, but the three doctors theorized it could be a direct protein-protein interaction, Dr. Liu’s area of expertise.

Inspired by this encounter, Dr. Liu and her team at CAMH began researching protein-protein interactions and identified a protein complex that is elevated in PTSD patients.

“This protein complex is present in normal situations, but is greatly elevated by traumatic experiences. We think that the normal physiological response is for the complex levels to increase, then gradually come back down. But in some people, the complex levels stay elevated, and this leads to PTSD,” says Dr. Liu.

After identifying the protein complex, the researchers were able to develop a method to target and disrupt it. Early testing indicates that the peptide may be able to prevent recall or encoding of fear memories.

PTSD patients can suffer from debilitating flashbacks, nightmares and anxiety which can severely impact quality of life. There are currently no laboratory diagnostic tests for PTSD, and existing treatments have limited efficacy.

Dr. Liu and her team are pursuing several avenues of research, seeking to refine their understanding of the role the protein complex plays in the formation of traumatic memories.

“One day, we hope that we can predict who will develop PTSD after a traumatic event,” says Dr. Liu. “Even more importantly, our ongoing research may eventually uncover a way to treat or prevent PTSD.”

 “With further work, we hope that this peptide might be effective in humans as a treatment or prevention for PTSD. It has the potential to alleviate the suffering of millions of Canadians.”