Dr. Alan Peterson believes that we can do a better job helping our warriors recover  from PTSD using cognitive behavioral therapy

Battling war’s psychological wounds

Monday, November 10, 2014by Joel Williams

Alan Peterson, Ph.D., ABPP, believes that we can do a better job helping our warriors recover from the horrors of the combat zone.

A baseball diamond started a path that brought Alan Peterson, Ph.D., to the UT Health Science Center San Antonio directing the world’s top research program in his field.  

He fell in love with psychological research while playing baseball for the University of Central Florida, after volunteering for a study on batters’ visual judgment. He soon found himself offering tips from a player’s perspective on how to enhance the study.

Dr. Peterson, chief of the Health Science Center’s Division of Behavioral Medicine in the School of Medicine’s Psychiatry Department, now oversees a research network that has won more than $100 million in funding from the U.S. Departments of Defense (DoD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) and the National Institutes of Health to address combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related conditions in our service members and recently discharged veterans. It has earned the UT Health Science Center status as the international leader in a critical research area.


Firsthand experience in combat zone

Just as baseball experience enabled him to help improve that first study, the now-retired Air Force lieutenant colonel’s service as clinical psychologist in a combat zone provided insight for establishing the cutting-edge research network he leads. He has been there and seen what our troops have gone through.

Among his three deployments was one in 2004 to Joint Base Balad in Iraq. The hospital there cared for the mass casualties from the battle of Fallujah and was then the world’s busiest trauma center.

“That’s when I really saw the impact of what people are exposed to,” Dr. Peterson says.

His team was responsible for mental health services, but he found no research-backed guidelines for treating PTSD in a war zone.

So he took a form of cognitive behavioral therapy in which he’d been trained and that was proven effective with civilians and adapted it with great success. Still, he knew that much work needed to be done to develop evidence-based PTSD therapies suited to military needs and ultimately cure PTSD.

“A huge national need”

“The warriors who have served our country deserve no less than the best care,” says Dr. Peterson.  “There is a huge national need in this area, and nobody really has a handle on it.”

He says clinical trials informing future DoD and VA clinical practice guidelines on PTSD and related conditions are critical, because “we don’t want to end up with another generation of veterans like we had after the Vietnam War, when a lot of people needed help, but nobody knew how to help them.”

That has been Dr. Peterson’s main focus since joining the Health Science Center in 2005. With PTSD identified as a signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – affecting approximately one in seven who served there, or about 350,000 people – he used his experience to build a world-class research network focused on finding the best ways to prevent and treat it.  

World’s largest PTSD research consortium

That network includes the STRONG STAR Multidisciplinary PTSD Research Consortium, established under Dr. Peterson’s and the Health Science Center’s leadership in 2008 with $35 million in DoD funding; numerous separately funded, subsequent studies that are affiliated with STRONG STAR and share its mission; and the Consortium to Alleviate PTSD (CAP), established in 2013 with $45 million in funding from the DoD and the VA. The umbrella organization STRONG STAR – South Texas Research Organizational Network Guiding Studies on Trauma and Resilience – is the world’s largest PTSD research consortium, with more than 125 investigators from more than 25 partnering institutions conducting more than 25 studies focused on prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of PTSD and related conditions.

Dr. Peterson considers this the most important work of his career, but his approach again goes back to his school days.

Mentored by student of B.F. Skinner

He credits graduate school mentor, Nathan Azrin, Ph.D., ABPP, with instilling a hunger to research numerous topics. Azrin, a student of behaviorism pioneer B.F. Skinner, was among the first to apply Skinner’s animal studies to humans. Azrin advanced the understanding of more than two dozen disorders.

Peterson’s research résumé is also broad:  weight loss, pain, insomnia, tobacco cessation and Tourette’s  syndrome are some items on the list.

So is the STRONG STAR and CAP resume, taking a multidisciplinary approach to numerous military-relevant research topics, including PTSD, traumatic brain injury, insomnia, chronic pain, suicide risk, and related problems.

Envisioning “national center for warrior resiliency”

Ultimately, Dr. Peterson envisions growing the UT Health Science Center program into a “national center for warrior resiliency,” offering research, clinician training and clinical services, strategically located in San Antonio, where the DoD already concentrates its medical training.

“That could be where we make our mark,” he says. “If you think of where you go for the best cancer treatment, for example, you think about a particular place. No place has captured the market for PTSD. We could be that place.”