Dr. Blair Wisco
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the leading causes of disability, according to the World Health Organization. The mental condition occurring as a reaction to life-altering trauma or events increases the sufferer’s risk for serious physical health problems, including cardiovascular disease. Considering PTSD affects 6.5 percent—or approximately 21 million—of Americans, studying the condition’s effect on the body is of paramount importance. Prior to 2015, few studies had been conducted to measure PTSD’s physiological effects.
That’s when Dr. Blaire Wisco, assistant professor of psychology and director of UNCG’s Cognitive, Psychopathology, and Emotion (CoPE) Lab, stepped in.
An Association of Psychological Science “Rising Star,” Wisco set out to understand the “wear and tear” PTSD has on the body, especially the heart. By monitoring the physiological response that occurs with trauma reminders—real-life experiences or personal memories that remind sufferers of their trauma—she hoped not only to measure potential damage on the heart but also to improve current PTSD treatments.
“In therapy, an individual may discuss a traumatic event and have an entirely different, perhaps milder, reaction to it than an unexpected resurgence of the memory in a real-world setting,” says Wisco. “That trauma reminder’s emotional and physiological effect outside of the office is what we need to understand.”
To do this, Wisco embarked on a pilot study backed by a prestigious Faculty First Summer Excellence Award. Established in 2014, Faculty First Awards—part of the Faculty First Program—support select faculty research or creative projects during the summer. The awards are highly competitive; thus their recipients represent the highest academic rigor and creativity UNCG offers.
Wisco and her team at CoPE monitored specific biomarkers in veterans suffering from PTSD. Veterans wore ambulatory heart monitors that measured their cardiovascular responses for 24 hours, three days in a row. Veterans also carried iPads and participated in frequent, random surveys that asked them if they were thinking about their trauma and to rate the intensity of their emotions. The accumulated data provided the most comprehensive assessment of cardiovascular reactivity to trauma to date, as well as opportunities for future studies and improved treatments.
“This technology, which measures patients’ symptoms as they experience them, could transform the way we treat PTSD,” says Wisco. “It can help doctors identify the right strategies for their patients.”
Wisco’s work is far from done. In January 2018, she secured funding through a National Institute of Mental Health R15 grant, which will allow her to expand her pilot study during the summer. Coupled with her current American Psychological Foundation study focusing on emotional and physiological responses to trauma rumination, Wisco stands ready to revolutionize PTSD treatment, bolstering mental health for millions of Americans.
If you would like to learn more about the Faculty First Summer Excellence Awards and the Faculty First Program, please contact:
Kris Davidson, Associate Vice Chancellor of Advancement
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