Study Looking for Connection Between Dopamine, PTSD

By Ben Boulden

Joshua Cisler, Ph.D., of UAMS’ Brain Imaging Research Center, was awarded a five-year grant worth $1.6 million from the National Institute of Mental Health in March to test if a drug that boosts dopamine levels in the brain will improve a specific type of learning among women with PTSD. The aim of the study is to provide women with PTSD a means of relieving their symptoms, which can include depression, anxiety and other health problems.

Clint Kilts, Ph.D., Jeff Pyne, M.D., and Cisler are currently recruiting women ages 21 -50 who have PTSD to participate in the study. The participants will undergo a series of learning tasks to measure their brain function level while in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. They will then receive a small dose of levodopa, also known as L-dopa, a drug typically prescribed for Parkinson’s patients and that has been shown to improve learning. The drug temporarily increases the level of dopamine, a naturally occurring chemical that controls the brain’s reward and learning centers. The research subjects will then take the same tests to measure any changes in their performance and brain function due to the drug.

An estimated 8 million adults in this country have PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD. About 10 percent of women develop PTSD sometime in their lives compared with about 4 percent of men.

“Women who experience traumatic events, like physical abuse or sexual assault, are considered high risks to develop PTSD. It can take a lot of time and effort for them to feel safe and secure after something like that,” said Cisler. “We hope that, when combined with therapy, this drug will help them learn to feel less anxious and safer in their surroundings.”

L-dopa has been shown to help Parkinson’s patients deal with symptoms like tremors, stiffness and slowness of movement caused by a lack of dopamine. The UAMS researchers will be working with a genetics expert to try to determine which participants benefit the most from the drug. They hope that the study will lead to the treatment eventually being prescribed for patients with PTSD symptoms.

“This is the first time it has ever been used in a PTSD population. We expect it to help people learn how to overcome the feelings that are associated with PTSD and to improve the efficiency of their brain function,” said Cisler.

Anyone interested in taking part in the study should contact Jennifer Payne at (501) 526-8497.

UAMS is the state’s only comprehensive academic health center, with colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Health Professions and Public Health; a graduate school; a hospital; a northwest Arkansas regional campus; a statewide network of regional centers; and seven institutes: the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, the Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, the Myeloma Institute, the Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, the Psychiatric Research Institute, the Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging and the Translational Research Institute. It is the only adult Level 1 trauma center in the state. UAMS has 3,021 students, 789 medical residents and two dental residents. It is the state’s largest public employer with more than 10,000 employees, including about 1,000 physicians and other professionals who provide care to patients at UAMS, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the VA Medical Center and UAMS regional centers throughout the state. Visit or Find us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram.