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A Randomized, Double-Blind Evaluation of d-Cycloserine or Alprazolam Combined With Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans
Barbara Olasov Rothbaum, Ph.D.; Matthew Price, Ph.D.; Tanja Jovanovic, Ph.D.; Seth D. Norrholm, Ph.D.; Maryrose Gerardi, Ph.D.; Boadie Dunlop, M.D.; Michael Davis, Ph.D.; Bekh Bradley, Ph.D.; Erica J. Duncan, M.D.; Albert Rizzo, Ph.D.; Kerry J. Ressler, M.D., Ph.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2014;171:640-648. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.13121625
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Dr. Rothbaum is a consultant to and owns equity in Virtually Better, Inc., which creates virtual environments; however, Virtually Better did not create the Virtual Iraq environment tested in this study; the terms of these arrangements have been reviewed and approved by Emory University in accordance with its conflict of interest policies. Dr. Rothbaum also has funding from Department of Defense Clinical Trial Grant W81XWH-10-1-1045 (“Enhancing Exposure Therapy for PTSD: Virtual Reality and Imaginal Exposure With a Cognitive Enhancer”), from NIMH grant U19 MH-069056 (“The Emory-MSSM-GSK-NIMH Collaborative Mood and Anxiety Disorders Initiative”), from NIMH grant R01 MH-70880 (“A Cognitive Enhancer May Facilitate Behavioral Exposure Therapy”), from NIMH grant R01 MH-094757 (“Prospective Determination of Psychobiological Risk Factors for Posttraumatic Stress”), from a Brain and Behavior Research Foundation (NARSAD) Distinguished Investigator Grant (“Optimal Dose of Early Intervention to Prevent PTSD”), and from the McCormick Foundation (“BraveHeart: MLB’s Welcome Back Veterans Southeast Initiative”); she has received previous support from Transcept Pharmaceuticals (“A Multi-Center, Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Parallel Group Study to Evaluate the Efficacy and Safety of Low-Dose Ondansetron for Adjunctive Therapy in Adult Patients With Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Who Have Not Adequately Responded to Treatment With a Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor”); she receives royalties from Oxford University Press, Guilford, American Psychiatric Publishing, and Emory University; and she received one advisory board payment from Genentech. Dr. Dunlop has received grant support from Bristol-Myers Squibb, Forest, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, and Pfizer in the past 3 years and has served as a consultant to Roche and Bristol-Myers Squibb. Drs. Ressler and Davis are founding members of Extinction Pharmaceuticals/Therapade Technologies, which seek to develop d-cycloserine and other compounds for use to augment the effectiveness of psychotherapy; they have received no equity or income from this relationship within the last 3 years; the terms of these arrangements have been reviewed and approved by Emory University in accordance with its conflict of interest policies. Dr. Duncan has received research support from the Posit Science Corporation and grant support from NIMH and the National Institute on Drug Abuse; she is on salary as an Attending Psychiatrist in the Mental Health Service, Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Decatur, Ga. The remaining authors report no financial relationships with commercial interests.

Supported by NIMH grant R01 MH-70880 to Dr. Rothbaum.

Clinicaltrials.gov identifier: NCT00356278

From the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program and the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta; the Trauma Recovery Program and Mental Health Service, Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Atlanta; the Department of Psychology, University of Vermont, Burlington; the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Chevy Chase, Md.; and the Institute for Creative Technologies and the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of Southern California, Playa Vista, Calif.

Presented at the 29th Annual Meeting of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, Nov. 7–9, 2013, Philadelphia.

Address correspondence to Dr. Rothbaum (brothba@emory.edu).

Copyright © 2014 by the American Psychiatric Association

Received December 11, 2013; Revised January 03, 2014; Revised January 22, 2014; Accepted January 29, 2014.

Abstract

Objective  The authors examined the effectiveness of virtual reality exposure augmented with d-cycloserine or alprazolam, compared with placebo, in reducing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to military trauma.

Method  After an introductory session, five sessions of virtual reality exposure were augmented with d-cycloserine (50 mg) or alprazolam (0.25 mg) in a double-blind, placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial for 156 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans with PTSD.

Results  PTSD symptoms significantly improved from pre- to posttreatment across all conditions and were maintained at 3, 6, and 12 months. There were no overall differences in symptoms between d-cycloserine and placebo at any time. Alprazolam and placebo differed significantly on the Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale score at posttreatment and PTSD diagnosis at 3 months posttreatment; the alprazolam group showed a higher rate of PTSD (82.8%) than the placebo group (47.8%). Between-session extinction learning was a treatment-specific enhancer of outcome for the d-cycloserine group only. At posttreatment, the d-cycloserine group had the lowest cortisol reactivity and smallest startle response during virtual reality scenes.

Conclusions  A six-session virtual reality treatment was associated with reduction in PTSD diagnoses and symptoms in Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, although there was no control condition for the virtual reality exposure. There was no advantage of d-cycloserine for PTSD symptoms in primary analyses. In secondary analyses, alprazolam impaired recovery and d-cycloserine enhanced virtual reality outcome in patients who demonstrated within-session learning. d-Cycloserine augmentation reduced cortisol and startle reactivity more than did alprazolam or placebo, findings that are consistent with those in the animal literature.

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FIGURE 1. Effect of Treatment on Clinician-Rated Symptoms and Extinction Learning in Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans With PTSD Treated With Virtual Reality Exposure Plus d-Cycloserine, Alprazolam, or Placebo

a Model implied from a mixed-effect model that used all participants (N=156).

b Differences are significant outside of the area defined by the blue lines. The confidence bands indicate that there was a significant difference between d-cycloserine and alprazolam when relative learning was less than –6.29 and greater than 18.99. There was a significant difference between d-cycloserine and placebo when relative learning was less than 4.78 and greater than 23.94.

c Extinction learning was defined as the difference between peak subjective distress ratings in successive sessions. Subjective discomfort was rated from 0 (no anxiety) to 100 (maximum anxiety). The mean of the differences across time was used as an index of average extinction learning.

FIGURE 2. Posttreatment Cortisol and Startle Responses in Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans With PTSD Treated With Virtual Reality Exposure Plus d-Cycloserine, Alprazolam, or Placeboa

a Cortisol data were available for 104 participants at baseline, and 39 had data at all three time points (baseline, posttreatment, 6-month follow-up). Startle data were available for 117 patients at baseline, and 32 had data at all three times.

b Change from baseline to 15 minutes after virtual reality exposure.

c Cortisol response for d-cycloserine group differed significantly from responses for alprazolam (F=3.40, df=1, 23, p<0.05) and placebo (F=11.42, df=1, 23, p<0.05).

d Startle was measured by electromyography of the orbicularis oculi muscle contraction in response to white noise bursts. Values are represented as percentages of baseline values in order to correct for pretreatment group differences.

e The d-cycloserine group showed a significant difference over time (F=51.65, df=2, 12, p=0.001).

Anchor for Jump
TABLE 1.Baseline Characteristics of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans With PTSD Treated With Virtual Reality Exposure Plus d-Cycloserine, Alprazolam, or Placebo
Anchor for Jump
TABLE 2.Means Estimated From Piecewise Model Predicting Symptom Scores for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans With PTSD Treated With Virtual Reality Exposure Plus d-Cycloserine, Alprazolam, or Placebo
Table Footer Note

a The CI is needed to provide a range for the population parameter estimate. The CI around the baseline measure indicates that all of the groups started at the same point.

Anchor for Jump
TABLE 3.Proportion of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans With PTSD Who Met PTSD Criteria After Virtual Reality Exposure Plus d-Cycloserine, Alprazolam, or Placeboa
Table Footer Note

a Significantly higher rate than for placebo (χ2=7.11, df=1, p=0.008).

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