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$3.5M National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Award for Dr. Anka Vujanovic

Updated: May 18, 2023


For Immediate Release: April 18, 2023; Houston, Texas


Struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be a difficult, debilitating challenge to navigate for millions of Americans. It is estimated that about 13 million Americans had PTSD in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs. In fact, one study estimates that 46.4 percent of people with PTSD also meet the criteria for a substance use disorder.


HEALTH-RCMI's Investigator Development Core Director Dr. Anka Vujanovic is now launching a new research initiative. Dr. Vujanovic and Co-Principal Investigator Dr. Sudie Back of the Medical University of South Carolina were recently awarded $3.5 million from the NIAAA to study a novel integrative cognitive behavioral intervention, which combines Cognitive Processing Therapy for PTSD with Relapse Prevention for Alcohol Use Disorder, to help individuals experiencing both conditions. [HEALTH-RCMI PI: Dr. Ezemenari Obasi]


The study is entitled, "Integration of Cognitive Processing Therapy and Relapse Prevention for Alcohol Use Disorder and Co-Occurring PTSD: A Randomized Clinical Trial.”

“The comorbidity of alcohol use disorder with PTSD is very complex and common,” Vujanovic said. “We really don’t have a leading treatment modality. Consensus regarding best practices for this comorbidity has not been established. What this grant was designed to do is to examine and evaluate an integrative treatment for alcohol use disorder and PTSD that aims to treat both conditions together in an integrative fashion. The experimental treatment combines Cognitive Processing Therapy with Relapse Prevention, and we will compare it against standard Relapse Prevention.”


For this novel study, researchers hope to recruit 200 adults who have PTSD and Alcohol Use Disorder across two sites—University of Houston and Medical University of South Carolina. The integrative treatment involves twelve 90-minute psychotherapy sessions which will be administered 2 times per week, for a 6-week span. Participants will record their alcohol use and PTSD symptoms in daily diaries and ecological momentary assessments to see real-time changes.


Delving further into relapse prevention, Vujanovic underscored how crucial it was to explore new treatment alternatives.


“There are not a lot of treatment options for integrative care,” Vujanovic said. “Usually people either get PTSD treatment or they get addiction treatment, and the majority receive only general mental health-oriented care. It’s rare that people can go and get treated for both conditions with an evidence-based care approach. The problem is if you just treat the alcohol use disorder, and you don’t treat the PTSD, people are at greater risk for relapse to alcohol use. People with PTSD and alcohol use disorder tend to be using alcohol to self-medicate PTSD symptoms. These aren’t two separate conditions, because they’re one interrelated condition—people have PTSD, and they are typically coping or self-medicating their symptoms with alcohol use.”


For Vujanovic, her passion for this work derives from a deeper personal interest about the aftermath of trauma. Vujanovic is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, and her family was impacted by civil war during the 1990’s. These experiences led her to initially explore trauma research.


“I’ve been moved by the effects of intergenerational trauma, recovery, and resilience from a very young age, so, I kind of grew up around this idea of trauma before I understood what it was,” Vujanovic said. “It was in graduate school that I discovered my passion for trauma research and practice. As I started to work with trauma survivors, I saw this huge gap in field-level knowledge, as so many of my patients and research participants were using substances to manage their PTSD symptoms, but few treatment options were available.”

Vujanovic added that the resilience and strength of her patients and research participants has uniquely inspired her, and she’s grateful for the opportunity to do this important work.


“We are so excited to be able to do this work,” Vujanovic said. “We’re so fortunate to have a team of brilliant, enthusiastic researchers on this team. This is a labor of love. We’re hopeful it will lead to positive changes in the treatment landscape.”



--Alison Medley



If you would like more information about this topic, please contact Alison Medley at 713.320.0933 or email aemedle2@central.uh.edu

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