H&H speaks to the authors of this first study of its type, to find out what quantifiable benefits the equine therapy had on the brains of veterans with post traumatic stress disorder
US researchers say the exploratory study, published in Human Brain Mapping, is the first to demonstrate EAT “can affect functional and structural changes” in the brains of patients.
During the peer-reviewed research, 19 veterans completed eight weekly group sessions of EAT, during which clinical assessments and neuro-imaging were conducted before and after treatment, and in a follow-up three months later. The results found patients showed a “significant increase” in connectivity between different regions of the brain, and reduction in gray matter density of the thalamus, a hub in the brain, suggesting EAT may target the reward circuit of the brain.
Researcher Yuval Neria told H&H neuroimaging of patients with PTSD who have undergone EAT had never been done before.
“The changes are telling us that patients who had this treatment can enjoy pleasurable experiences more fully after the treatment, compared to the beginning,” he said.
“The most fascinating discovery of this study was that both the horse and patient with PTSD share a lot of commonalities; the patient is constantly preoccupied with issues of fear and trust and it’s the same with the horse. Horses are prey animals; constantly alert and are hypervigilant. On the other hand they are social animals looking to bond and feel safe, so they share these key elements with patients with PTSD.”
Dr Neria added that the study was a pilot owing to a lack of a comparison control group, so the only analysis that could be done was comparing clinical assessments and the neuroimaging before and after treatment.
“We are happy with the results of the study but we need to follow this with a conclusive examination to make sure we are going in the right direction,” he said.
“One of the surprising things was, we had a low dropout rate of 9%, suggesting the treatment was a desirable experience. If you compare that to a medication or prolonged exposure treatment for PTSD, it’s a big difference and that’s why we believe there is such big potential with EAT. The other surprise was that you can get such good results without the patient speaking about the trauma and analysing what happened to them.”
Researcher Prudence Fisher observed the sessions and interviewed the patients at the end of the treatment.
“We are now revising a manual based on our experience from this study. EAT looks like it is good for PTSD in veterans so we think it would be good for PTSD in other populations, such as traumatised children, as opposed to using talk therapy,” she told H&H.
“By the end of the study the veterans seemed much more relaxed and even looked physically different; they stood up straighter, it was really striking, the difference,” she said.
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