Harrowing experiences damage the brain. New drugs promise to heal it. Could the end of posttraumatic stress be near?
By Matt Bean, Men's Health
Roger Pitman, M.D., hunts nightmares for a living. Not the vivid phantasmagoria populated by zombies or disembodied skulls, or even the nude-at-the-podium orations that leave us blushing in our sleep. He's after the nonfiction variety, the indelible, enduring flashbacks that stick in our heads after reality goes awry: a saw blade meeting flesh, say, or an improvised explosive device overturning a Humvee.
I'm in Dr. Pitman's lab in Boston, watching him track down a particularly vivid figment, a stab wound to the neck that's been plaguing 43-year-old carpenter Al Carney for 2 months now. "We're about to put him back in the most horrifying moment of his life," says the Harvard psychiatrist, peeling back the top sheet on a thick medical file labeled Patient 102. In the room next door, the stout laborer sits, eyes closed, headphones on, wired with a battery of biofeedback equipment: electrodes affixed to his chest to monitor his heart rate; a forehead sensor scanning for tension; and a tiny pad on the inside of his palm measuring how much sweat seeps through his skin.
"It's 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, March 30," a narrator begins to read over the headphones. "Noticing Peter Bowman standing there, you become tense all over. He says he's here to collect a check. Feeling jittery, you tell him he needs to fix several things before you pay him any more. As the argument becomes heated, your heart beats faster. Peter becomes physically aggressive, and you feel a blow to your neck. You fall to the ground. Several people pull him off you. . . . After you're separated, you realize that you're bleeding profusely from several knife wounds."
Carney's vital signs ebb and flow on a flat-screen monitor in the corner of the room as he reimagines the assault. They spike when he's "stabbed" by Bowman. But I don't need whirring telemetry machines to tell me the narrative has struck a nerve: Carney starts fidgeting, and he taps his scuffed gym shoes together at the toes. Even though he's been asked to sit still, his head twitches back and forth against the recliner's headrest. Later, Dr. Pitman will compare Carney's physiological responses with the results from previous sessions, as well as his reactions to positive>