SMHS Researcher Awarded $1.5 Million to Study PTSD and Cardiovascular Disease

Paul Marvar, SMHS assistant professor of pharmacology and physiology, will explore a possible link between PTSD and risk for cardiovascular disease.

Paul Marvar
Paul Marvar, a School of Medicine and Health Sciences assistant professor of pharmacology and physiology, was awarded more than $1.5 million to assess a possible connection between high stress and cardiovascular disease. (Photo courtesy of SMHS)
February 26, 2018

Researchers from the School of Medicine and Health Sciences have started to explore the psychological components of anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to assess a possible connection between high stress and cardiovascular disease.

The National Institutes of Health recently awarded Paul Marvar, SMHS assistant professor of pharmacology and physiology, more than $1.5 million to study the underlying mechanisms that allow the brain renin-angiotensin system to impact fear memory over the next four years.

The renin-angiotensin system is a hormone system involved in regulating blood pressure and fluid balance in the body. Dr. Marvar believes the angiotensin receptors may be mediators in fear memory as they are expressed in the amygdala, the region of the brain critical for fear learning.

“Clinical evidence over the last 20 years has shown a link between individuals with post-traumatic stress and their incidence of cardiovascular disease, including coronary artery disease, atherosclerosis and high blood pressure,” Dr. Marvar said. “Our research will look specifically at the brain renin-angiotensin system and its role in this connection.”

The renin angiotensin system has been widely implicated in cardiovascular disease and has also been identified in the stress response. In previous clinical research, Dr. Marvar and colleagues determined individuals who were taking medications that block the angiotensin receptors, such as angiotensin-converting-enzyme (ACE) inhibitors had fewer PTSD symptoms.

PTSD has long been associated with members of the military following time in war. However, the disorder is also a prevalent problem emerging in civilians who experience high-stress situations.

Through this study, Dr. Marvar and his research team hope to identify a particular mechanism to explain how the brain renin-angiotensin system could affect fear memory and associated increased risk of cardiovascular disease in those dealing with PTSD.

“We think that if we are able to identify that, then we potentially will be able to intervene at different points following the traumatic memory,” he said. “We could potentially use drugs that target the angiotensin system at the point of formation of the memory or extinction of the memory.”

The project, titled “Brain Angiotensin II as a Mediator of Fear Memory and Cardiovascular Dysfunction,” will use a highly sensitive form of mass spectrometry to look at how the peptides synthesize and identify the sites of action. Dr. Marvar is collaborating with Peter Nemes, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Maryland at College Park, an expert in mass spectrometry, whose research group recently developed an ultrasensitive mass spectrometer for neuroscience with funding from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.

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