UCL News


Investigating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

30 June 2006

A study led by Dr Matthew Whalley (UCL Psychology) involving people affected by the events of 7 July 2005 aims to discover whether people who have experienced a traumatic event become hyper-alert to all future threats.

To date, experts have believed that people with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are hyper-vigilant to the risk of a similar trauma recurring, for example, a victim of mugging might be permanently on the lookout for future muggers. However, Dr Whalley's research is investigating the premise that people with PTSD develop heightened awareness to any kind of threatening scenarios.

Dr Whalley is using a simple computer-based task to measure "attentional blink" - the time that the brain takes to process a piece of information, during which it ceases to absorb new data. He is looking to see whether the enhanced awareness of people with PTSD overrides the brain's natural pause in processing information.

"The volunteers who have undertaken the half-hour task were all directly affected by the 7 July bombings. It's extremely useful to study a set of people who have been through the same trauma, and refreshingly everyone has been really interested in the work and keen to help," said Dr Whalley. "It is generally acknowledged that PTSD is a memory disorder, but our current work aims to nail exactly which brain processes are involved, which we hope will contribute to more effective treatment for the condition."

The attentional blink study is part of a larger research programme into PTSD led by Professor Chris Brewin of UCL Clinical Health Psychology. Professor Brewin helped to set up a team that has been screening survivors of 7 July bombings for symptoms of PTSD since the incident took place, and he met many of the research volunteers through his work at the Traumatic Stress Clinic.

Only 30 per cent of people who are involved in a severe trauma go on to develop PTSD, and hyperarousal is only one of three classes of symptoms, which means that Dr Whalley's team have struggled to find suitable volunteers. Participants must be 18-50 years old, first-language English speakers, and have been directly involved in any way by the bombings.

To apply to take part in the research, contact Dr Matthew Whalley on +44 (0)20 7679 5363 or use the links at the top of this article.

UCL is able to provide counselling to those staff and students affected by the July 7 events. Staff can find out more by clicking here; students can find out more by clicking here.