UNSW trauma research backed with elite grant

Scientia Professor Richard Bryant
Monday, 16 February, 2009
Bob Beale

A leading research program in the UNSW School of Psychology into the mental aftermath of trauma has won $7.1 million backing from the National Health and Medical Research Council.

The program, led by Scientia Professor Richard Bryant, will receive $7.1m over five years to build the nation's capacity to reduce psychological problems after trauma such as Victoria's devastating bushfires.

The prestigious Program Grants - worth an average of $7.2m each over five years - are highly prized by researchers, enabling them to pursue the best research options over an extended period.

Professor Bryant recently received the 2008 Australian Psychological Society Award for Distinguished Contribution to Science.

The award recognises distinguished theoretical or empirical contributions to psychology by psychologists at mid or later career stage for someone currently engaged in innovative research, which represents a major influence on the direction of research in the scientist's area. This esteemed award has only been handed out five times in the past decade. Three of the five recipients  - Professor Bryant, Professor George Paxinos and Scientia Professor Joe Forgas - have been from the UNSW School of Psychology.

Professor Bryant became interested in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 1989, while working at Westmead Hospitals' Department of Psychology. He joined the School in 1995 as a lecturer, becoming a professor in 2003.

"We knew that in the initial weeks following traumatic exposure, nearly everybody will show some sign of PTSD reaction in varying degrees," he says. "Flashbacks and nightmares are common and normal reactions. However, three to six months later, most of those people will get better without any help.

"For others, these reactions don't subside and are so distressing that they won't talk about the trauma or even let themselves think about it. They develop anxiety symptoms such as insomnia, startle response and hyper vigilance, which interfere with their ability to concentrate. In fact, about one in four people will end up with a PTSD, which is quite high considering a lot of people get exposed to trauma.

"We wanted to identify those at high risk of getting PTSD in the first month after trauma. For the last ten years, mainly at Westmead Hospital, we've been looking at the psychological and biological reactions of hundreds of people in the first couple of weeks after exposure, and then tracking them for months and years later.

"Our research led us to calculate hallmarks of those who are showing the acute stress reactions that are predictive of long-term disorder, and come up with a formula that identifies those who could be at high risk."

His  team then embarked on a number of early intervention trials to try to prevent PTSD in these high-risk people.

"Essentially, we use cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), an established technique in treating chronic anxiety disorder, in the early intervention phase. We encourage victims to talk about their experiences and feelings every day for a period of time. Initially, this is very distressing, but we find that this kind of therapy reduces the frequency and intensity of the memories."

Trials showed that if people receive traditional counselling, some two-thirds will still have PTSD six months later but if they have CBT only about 20 per cent will develop PTSD.

UNSW dominated the latest round of NHMRC funding, winning a record 80 percent of the $39.6 million on offer in NSW, which represented almost a third of the $108m offered nationally by the NHMRC

The funding, announced by the Federal Minister for Health and Ageing, Nicola Roxon, will begin in 2010.