Novel Psychotherapy Treatment to Address Maternal PTSD

Alice Bian pipetting


Engineering and Applied Sciences


Assistant Professor Of Psychiatry At The Hospital Of The University Of Pennsylvania

Project Summary

Partial PTSD (pPTSD) arises when individuals exhibit some symptoms of PTSD but not enough for a formal diagnosis. Highly comorbid with major depression, pPTSD poses a particular risk to pregnant women and their fetuses but is often overlooked due to its incomplete symptoms. To prevent pPTSD symptoms from escalating, it is important to provide treatment as early as possible. This summer, I joined Dr. Sara Kornfield in her research on creating a novel, short-term psychotherapy treatment for pregnant women who exhibit partial, mild, and/or full PTSD symptoms.

Patients in our treatment group underwent four therapy sessions in one month. There, they discussed any thoughts and feelings avoided, practiced anxiety-provoking activities, and performed exercises to slow their heart rate. All participants, treatment or control, underwent three acoustic startle response procedures to measure their physiological arousal to everyday situations.

I started off recruiting patients in the waiting room of Penn’s Ob/Gyn Helen O. Dickens Center for Women’s Health. Each potential recruit was asked to fill out the PTSD CheckList (PCL), and based on the score received on an 85-point scale, was classified as a treatment participant (40 to 85 points), trauma control (1 to 40 points), or healthy control (0 points). Later, I learned to administer the acoustic startle response procedure and process patients’ blood samples to determine their cortisol levels. The former involved placing electrodes on participants’ face and fingers to measure sweat levels and blink strength, and playing a slideshow of potentially stressful images. The latter involved centrifuging blood samples to separate red blood cells and plasma, which were then sent to external labs for further examination.

Based on the data collected thus far, participants in the treatment group showed an average decrease of 23 points in PCL score. They also demonstrated a statistically significant decrease in startle response to pleasant and unpleasant images after treatment. This brief psychotherapy approach thus showed promising results in curbing pPTSD symptoms, as participants maintained their post-treatment PCL scores 12-14 weeks after delivery.

In joining Dr. Kornfield’s psychiatry lab, I had the chance to explore a field wildly different from my intended major of mechanical engineering. During our weekly center-wide meetings and research presentations, I adopted a clinician’s perspective, discussing case studies of current Penn patients, weighing the ethics and costs of each decision, and giving suggestions to coworkers with difficult patient scenarios. I was also able to understand how tricky it was to navigate mental health issues because of its subjective nature; two people may experience the same traumatic event, but someone with less resilience or a different background may be more affected by the event and thus require a different treatment plan. But most importantly, I learned about the winded paths each professional in the office took in trying to find their own ways. While I return to my own major with more conviction in the fall, it was empowering to learn that not all detours set me behind.