Willie Vanderheyden uses fluorescent microscopy to identify sleep promoting cells in the dorsal part of a rat brain.
Neuroscientist Willie Vanderheyden uses fluorescent microscopy to identify sleep promoting cells in the dorsal part of a rat brain.

At any given time, an estimated 7.7 million American adults suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychiatric condition that occurs in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. Though PTSD can affect anyone who lives through trauma, it is especially common among military veterans returning from combat zones.

The effects of PTSD can be debilitating. It’s one reason why neuroscientist Willie Vanderheyden—an assistant research professor in the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine—has set out to better understand the condition and its ties to one of his other research interests: sleep.

“Up to 90 percent of people who have experienced trauma suffer from some type of sleep disturbance, whether it’s fragmented sleep, difficulty falling or staying asleep, or nightmares,” Vanderheyden said.

These sleep disturbances may be the result of PTSD, but Vanderheyden says it’s also possible that they are part of what is causing PTSD.

“We have troops that are out on patrol for multiple days and may or may not be getting any sleep during that time,” he said. “I’ve hypothesized that if veterans are experiencing sleep loss prior to experiencing trauma, it might increase their susceptibility to getting PTSD.”

Could improving sleep ease PTSD?

With funding from a $280K grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Defense-administered Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs, Vanderheyden is conducting a study that uses a rodent model of PTSD to test this hypothesis. As part of this research, he will also look at whether improving sleep following trauma exposure could help ease the behavioral symptoms seen in PTSD.

“This study could potentially, down the line, affect how veterans will be treated when they come back from combat,” Vanderheyden said.

If his hypotheses hold up, he envisions that veterans could someday be given sleep-inducing drugs to help them defend against the negative consequences of trauma exposure. Survivors of other types of traumas could similarly benefit from such strategies. As Vanderheyden points out, trauma survivors are often hospitalized and get poked, prodded, and tested to such a degree that it disrupts their sleep. The next goal would be to better understand the underlying mechanisms.

“Not only are the mechanisms of sleep not well understood, but how trauma interacts with sleep is very poorly understood,” Vanderheyden said.