WASHINGTON (Sept. 16, 2015) — Clinical evidence suggests a link between stress and anxiety-related mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and increased development of cardiovascular disease. However, little is known about this relationship. Researchers at The George Washington University, Emory University, and Harvard University were awarded a $750,000 combined research project grant from the American Heart Association to explain the connection, potentially leading to new therapeutic advances in the treatment of PTSD and associated cardiovascular disease comorbidity.
The project, titled “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Cardiovascular Disease Risk: Role of Sympathetic Overactivity and Angiotensin II,” will focus on the chronic overactivation and regulation of the sympathetic nervous system and increased inflammation that appears in those with PTSD and other anxiety-related disorders. Using both human and animal models, the team will address this study through basic science, clinical, and genomics research:
- Paul Marvar, MS, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmacology and physiology at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences, is the principal investigator on the award and will lead the research using animal models with PTSD, looking at the neural and molecular mechanisms and pathways of the sympathetic nervous system;
- Jeanie Park, MS, M.D., assistant professor in the Renal Division of the Emory University School of Medicine, will lead the research on patients with PTSD, looking at sympathetic nervous system activity, reactivity, and regulation; and
- Kerry Ressler, M.D., Ph.D., chief scientific officer and professor of psychiatry at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School, will lead research on underlying genetic components that may link some of the team’s findings and lead to better clues for explaining the link between PTSD and cardiovascular disease.
“When you bring together two, three, or more investigators from different disciplines and backgrounds, science is more exciting,” said Marvar. “Collaborative work progresses more quickly, leading to potential therapies that would otherwise not be discovered if multidisciplinary investigators had not come together.”
Marvar and his team at GW, who will build on previous work looking at the link between PTSD and cardiovascular disease, will use the many resources for PTSD research at GW and in the Washington, D.C. area. His team will first look at the development of hypertension, which occurs through over activation of the sympathetic nervous system, in animal models. Preliminary data shows that individuals with PTSD, just at resting levels, have an overactive sympathetic nervous system. At Emory University, Park will record data on nerve activity, examine inflammatory mediators in patients’ blood, and measure how the sympathetic nervous system is regulated during stress in these patients. Marvar will also record nerve activity in animal models, additionally testing drugs that target inflammatory pathways.
In addition to hypertension, those with PTSD often have increased levels of inflammation. The information gathered by Park and Marvar will help the team determine whether targeting inflammation has an effect on nerve activity and PTSD symptoms.
“With PTSD on the rise in the military and outside, it is crucial that we know why patients with PTSD are at higher risk for developing cardiovascular disease,” said Park. “Looking at sympathetic nervous system activation and inflammation could inform new therapies for PTSD-associated cardiovascular disease.”
Hypertension is associated with elevated sympathetic nerve activity — a predictor of cardiovascular disease risk.
“Looking at genes may unmask other pathways for therapies and may link a particular phenotype of patient with PTSD and over activation of the sympathetic nervous system and inflammation,” said Ressler.