I have spent my career studying how children and adults adapt to traumatic experiences, and have tried to translate emerging findings from pharmacology, neuroscience and attachment research to develop and study potentially effective treatments for traumatic stress in children and adults. In 1984 I set up one of the first clinical/research centers in the US dedicated to study and treatment of traumatic stress in civilian populations, which has trained numerous researchers and clinicians specializing in the study and treatment of traumatic stress, and which has been continually funded to research the impact of traumatic stress and effective treatment interventions. I did the first studies on the effects of SSRIs on PTSD; was a member of the first neuroimaging team to investigate how trauma changes brain processes, and did the first research linking BPD and deliberate self-injury to trauma and neglect in early childhood. Much of my research has focused on how trauma has a different impact at different stages of development, and that disruptions in care-giving systems have additional deleterious effects that need to be addressed for effective intervention. In order to promote a deeper understanding of the impact of childhood trauma and to foster the development and execution of effective treatment interventions I initiated the process that led to the establishment of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), a Congressionally mandated initiative that now funds approximately 150 centers specializing in developing effective treatment interventions, and implementing them in a wide array of settings, from juvenile detention centers to tribal agencies, nationwide. Based on data on 20,000 children followed within the Network we proposed to include a diagnosis Developmental Trauma Disorder within the DSM5. While that effort failed, we continue to systematically study the differential adaptation to trauma in children, in the expectation that this will eventually lead to a more precise diagnostic system that incorporates the effects of early experience on RDoC-related neurocircuits, and provide more precise targets for intervention. Following in the footsteps of Abram Kardiner who called traumatic stress a “physioneurosis” I have focused on studying treatments that stabilize physiology, increase executive functioning and help traumatized individuals to feel fully alert to the present. This has included an NIMH funded study on EMDR and NCCAM funded study of yoga, and, in recent years, the study of neurofeedback to investigate whether attentional and perceptual systems (and the neural tracks responsible for them) can be altered by changing EEG patterns, as well as the capacity of MDMA to ameliorate PTSD symptomatology. We have a well-trained clinical team that specializes in the treatment of children and adults with histories of child maltreatment, a variety of treatments that are widely taught and implemented nationwide, a research lab that studies the effects of neurofeedback and MDMA on behavior, mood, and executive functioning, and numerous training opportunities nationwide & internationally to a variety of mental health professional, educators, parent groups, policy makers, and law enforcement personnel.
Positions and Employment
1982-2000 Founder and Director, Trauma Center
1992-1997 Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School
1997-1999 Professor, Harvard University Graduate School of Education
1996- Professor of Psychiatry, Boston University School of Medicine
2000- Research and Medical Director, Trauma Center
2008- 2018 Vice President of Research, Justice Resource Institute
2012- 2017 Co-Director, CTTN, National Child Traumatic Stress Network
2018- President, Trauma Research Foundation
1984, 1988, 1989 1st prize, Solomon Award, Harvard Dept of Psychiatry 1990-91; President, International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies; 1994 Eli Lilly Lecturer, Royal College of Psychiatrists, London; 1996 Cohen Chair in Child Mental Health, NY Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services; 1998 Lifetime Achievement Award, International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies ; 1999 Benjamin Rush Award, American Psychiatric Association; 2001 Ben Wiesel Visiting professor, Institute for Living, Hartford. CT; 2001 Visiting professor, University of Salamanca, Spain 2002; Distinguished Life Fellow, American Psychiatric Association; 2006 Bowlby Memorial Lecture, University of London; 2006 Richard Lederman Lecturer. Performing Medicine Association Aspen CO; 2008 McNamee visiting professor Dartmouth University 2013 Reiss Davis distinguished professor, Los Angeles, 2014 Visiting professor, Center for Consciousness Science, University of Virginia; 2013 Visiting professor, University of Bahia, Brazil, 2014 Keynote, International Society for the prevention of child abuse, Nagoya. Japan; 2016 Wallerstein Lecturer UCSF, 2018 Keynote, Royal College of Psychiatry, London. etc etc.
A. Basic mental and biological parameters of PTSD. Since PTSD was just becoming a DSM diagnosis as I started my career I began investigating basic processes involved in traumatic stress, including the nature of nightmares in PTSD, as well as basic mental and biological processes, including the first biological model of PTSD, and the first neuroimaging studies of PTSD and Dissociative Disorders, and the first study to confirm immunological abnormalities related to childhood trauma:
a. Van der Kolk BA, Blitz R, Burr WA, Hartmann E (1984). Nightmares and trauma: Life-long and traumatic
nightmares in veterans. Am J Psychiatry 1984;141:187-190.
b. Van der Kolk, BA & Ducey, CP (1989). The psychological processing of traumatic experience: Rorschach patterns in PTSD. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 2(3), 259-274.
c. Van der Kolk BA, Greenberg M, Boyd H, Krystal J (1985): Inescapable shock, neurotransmitters, and addiction to trauma: toward a psychobiology of post traumatic stress. Biol Psychiatry 20:314-325 (the first published biological model for PTSD)
d. Van der Kolk BA, (1985) Adolescent vulnerability to post traumatic stress. Psychiatry, 48: 365-370. (one of the first studies to elucidate the role of committing atrocities, “moral injury”, for developing PTSD).
e. Van der Kolk BA, Greenberg MS, Orr S, Pitman RK (1989): Pain Perception and endogenous opioids in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Psychopharm Bull 25: 117-121.
f. Pitman RK, Van der Kolk BA, Orr S, Greenberg MS (1990): Naloxone reversible Stress Induced Analgesia In Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Arch Gen Psychiat. 47:541-547,.
g. Rauch S, Van der Kolk BA, Fisler R, Alpert N, Orr S, Savage C, Jenike M, Pitman R (1996): A symptom provocation study using Positron Emission Tomography and Script Driven Imagery. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 53, 380-387. (the first PET study of PTSD)
h. Saxe GN, Vasile RG, Hill TC, Bloomingdale K, Van der Kolk BA (1992): Temporal lobe changes in Multiple Personality Disorders demonstrated by rCBF and SPECT imaging. J Ment Nerv Dis, 1992. (the first neuroimaging study of dissociative disorders)
i. Wilson, S N; Van der Kolk, B A; Burbridge, JA; Fisler, R E; Kradin, R (1999). Phenotype of blood
lymphocytes in PTSD suggests chronic immune activation. Psychosomatics, 40, 222-225.
j. Hopper JW, Spinazzola J, Simpson WE, Van der Kolk BA. (2006). Preliminary Evidence of parasympathetic influence on the basal heart rate in posttraumatic stress disorder. J Psychosom Res 60: 83-90.
k. Hopper, JW; Frewen, PA; Van der Kolk, BA; Lanius, RA (2007). Neural correlates of reexperiencing, avoidance, and dissociation in PTSD: symptom dimensions and emotion dysregulation in response to script-driven trauma imagery. J. Traum. Stress. 20, 5, 713-725,.
B. Psychopharmacology. With the promise of psychopharmacology to be a potential solution to PTSD I was the PI/co-PI of the first two teams to study the capacity of fluoxetine and sertraline, respectively, to ameliorate PTSD symptomatology:
b. Van der Kolk BA, Dreyfuss D, Berkowitz R, Saxe G, Shera D & Michaels M (1994): Fluoxetine in Post Traumatic Stress. J Clin Psychiat, 517-522.
c. Davidson, J.R., Rothbaum, B.O., van der Kolk, B.A., Sikes, C.R. and Farfel, G.M., (2001). Multicenter, double-blind comparison of sertraline and placebo in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder. Archives of General Psychiatry, 58(5), pp.485-492.
C. Memory. Our studies of traumatized populations inevitably confronted us with the central issue of memory in traumatic stress – whether conscious (verbal) memory of the event(s) may be absent; the physiological arousal (and dissociation) in response to traumatic reminders, and the unusual fragmentary and sensory nature that accompanies recall of traumatic events:
Van der Kolk BA, Van der Hart O (1989): Pierre Janet and the breakdown of adaptation in Psychological Trauma. Am J Psychiat, 146:1330- 1342.
Van der Kolk, BA (1994): The Body keeps the Score: Memory and the evolving Psychobiology of Post Traumatic Stress. Harvard Review of Psychiatry 1; 253-65.
Van der Kolk BA, Fisler R (1995): Dissociation and the fragmentary nature of traumatic memories: background and experimental evidence. J Traumatic Stress, 9, 505-525.
Osterman JE, Hopper J, Heran, WJ, Keane TM, Van der Kolk BA (2001). Awareness under anesthesia and the development of posttraumatic stress disorder, Gen Hosp Psychiatry, 23 (4): 198-204.
Hopper J. W. Van der Kolk B. (2001): Retrieving and Assessing traumatic Memories. Exploring the nature of traumatic memory, Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, and Trauma, 4: 33-71.
D. The pervasive role of trauma in psychiatric disorders. As some of the psychological and biological parameters of traumatic stress were getting elucidated, my colleagues and I became curious about the potential role that childhood trauma plays in various psychiatric disorders, including:
a. Beck J, Van der Kolk BA: Reports of Childhood Incest and Current Behavior of Chronically Hospitalized
Psychotic women. Am J Psychiatry 144:1474-1476,1987.
b. Herman JL, Perry JC, Van der Kolk BA (1989): Childhood Trauma in Borderline Personality Disorder . Am J Psychiat 146: 490-495.
c. Van der Kolk BA, Perry JC Herman JL (1991): Childhood origins of self- destructive behavior. Am J Psychiat 148: 1665-1671,
d. Moleman N, Van der Hart O, Van der Kolk BA (1992): The Partus Stress Reaction: a neglected aspect of post partum psychopathology. J Nerv Ment Diseases, 180 271-272.
e. Saxe G, Van der Kolk BA, Chinman G, Berkowitz R: Dissociative Disorders in the Mental Hospital. (1993) Am J Psychiatry; 150: 1037-1042.
f. Herzog DB, Staley JE, Carmody S, Robbins WM, Van der Kolk BA (1993): Childhood sexual abuse in anorexia nervosa and bulemia nervosa. J Am Acad Child Adolsec Psychiat; 32. (5): 962-966
E. Complex PTSD, Disorders of Extreme Stress, and Developmental Trauma
Our studies of psychiatric populations paved the way to study the differential impact of traumatic experiences depending on stage of development and relationship to the perpetrator. Much of this work was done in my role as the co-PI of the DSM IV Field Trials for PTSD.
a. Van der Kolk, BA, Pelcovitz D, Roth S, Mandel F, McFarlane AC, Herman, J (1996): Dissociation, somatization and affect dysregulation: the complexity of adaptation to trauma. Am J Psychiat 153: 83-93.
b. Roth SH, Newman E, Pelcovitz D, Mandel FS, Van der Kolk BA. 1997. Complex PTSD in victims exposed to sexual and physical abuse: results from the DSM IV Field Trial for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. J Trauma Stress 10(4): 539-555.
c. Van der Kolk BA. (2005). Developmental Trauma Disorder: toward a rational diagnosis for children with complex trauma histories. Psychiatric Annals 35: 401-408,.
e. Van der Kolk, BA, Roth S, Pelcovitz D, Sunday S, Spinazzola J. (2005). Disorders of Extreme Stress: The Empirical Foundation of a complex adaptation to Trauma. J Trauma Stress 18 (5) 389-399.
f. Spinazzola J, Blaustein ME, Van der Kolk BA. 2005. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Treatment Outcome Research: The Study of unrepresentative samples? J trauma Stress 18; 425-436.
g. D’Andrea, W., Ford, J., Stolbach, B., Spinazzola, J. Van der Kolk, B. A (2012). Understanding
Interpersonal Trauma in Children: Why We Need a Developmentally Appropriate Trauma Diagnosis. Am J Orthopsychiatry, 82: 187–200,
h. Ford JD, Grasso, D Greene, C; Levine J; Spinazzola J; Van der Kolk, BA (2013) Clinical Significance of a Proposed Developmental Trauma Disorder Diagnosis: Results of an International Survey of Clinicians J Clin Psychiatry 74(8), 841–849, 2013.
i. Kinniburgh, K. J., Blaustein, M., Spinazzola, J., & Van der Kolk, B. A. (2017). Attachment, Self-Regulation, and Competency: A comprehensive intervention framework for children with complex trauma. Psychiatric annals, 35(5), 424-430.
j. Spinazzola, J., Ford, J. D., Zucker, M., van der Kolk, B. A., Silva, S., Smith, S. F., & Blaustein, M. (2017). Survey evaluates: Complex trauma exposure, outcome, and intervention among children and adolescents. Psychiatric Annals, 35(5), 433-439.
k. Spinazzola, J., van der Kolk, B., & Ford, J. D. (2018). When nowhere is safe: Trauma history antecedents of posttraumatic stress disorder and developmental trauma disorder in childhood. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 31(631-642).
l. Van der Kolk, B., Ford, J. D., & Spinazzola, J. (2019). Comorbidity of developmental trauma disorder (DTD) and post-traumatic stress disorder: findings from the DTD field trial. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 10(1).
F. Innovative treatments. As we became more aware of the profound neurobiological dysregulation produced by childhood trauma and saw the limited capacities of cognitive behavioral or drug treatments to produce substantial alterations in children and adults with histories of severe abuse and neglect we became intrigued with the potential of non-traditional methods to change the imprint of traumatic memories, and the pervasive physiological dysregulation and sensory integration problems.
a. Levin P, Lazrove S & Van der Kolk BA (1999): What psychological testing and neuroimaging tell us
about the treatment of PTSD by EMDR. J Anxiety Disorders. 13,159-172
b. Van der Kolk BA, Spinazzola J, Blaustein ME, Hopper JW, Hopper EK, Korn DL, Simpson WB. A Randomized clinical Trial of Eye Movement Desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), Fluoxetine, and Pill Placebo in the Treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: treatment Effects and Long-term maintenance (2007). J Clin Psychiat 66 (1), 37-45.
c. Zucker, M., Spinazzola, J., Pollack, A. A., Pepe, L., Barry, S., Zhang, L., & Van der Kolk, B. (2010). Getting Teachers in on the Act: Evaluation of a Theater-and Classroom-Based Youth Violence Prevention Program. Journal of School Violence, 9(2), 117-135.
d. Van der Kolk BA, Stone L, West J Rhodes A, Emerson D, Spinazzola J (2014): Yoga as an adjunctive treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder: a randomized controlled trial. J Clin Psychiatry 75(6):e559-65.
e. Price, M., Spinazzola, J., Musicaro, R., Turner, J., Suvak, M., Emerson, D., & van der Kolk, B. (2017). Effectiveness of an extended yoga treatment for women with chronic posttraumatic stress disorder. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 23(4), 300-309.
f. Rhodes, A., Spinazzola, J., & van der Kolk, B. (2016). Yoga for adult women with chronic PTSD: A long-term follow-up study. The journal of alternative and complementary medicine, 22(3), 189-196.
g. Gapen, M., van der Kolk, B. A., Hamlin, E., Hirshberg, L., Suvak, M., & Spinazzola, J. (2016). A pilot study of neurofeedback for chronic PTSD. Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback, 41(3), 251-261.
h van der Kolk, B. A., Hodgdon, H., Gapen, M., Musicaro, R., Suvak, M. K., Hamlin, E., & Spinazzola, J. (2016). A Randomized Controlled Study of Neurofeedback for Chronic PTSD. PloS one, 11(12), e0166752. (2017 Award for outstanding contribution to science, Foundation for Neurofeedback & Applied Neuroscience)
i. Rogel, A., Loomis, A. M., Hamlin, E., Hodgdon, H., Spinazzola, J., & van der Kolk, B. (2020). The impact of neurofeedback training on children with developmental trauma: A randomized controlled study. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy
j. Harricharan, S., McKinnon, M. C., Tursich, M., Densmore, M., Frewen, P., Théberge, J., van der Kolk B & Lanius, R. A. (2019). Overlapping frontoparietal networks in response to oculomotion and traumatic autobiographical memory retrieval: Implications for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. European J Psychotraumatology, 10(1), 1586265.
Van der Kolk BA: The Body keeps the Score: brain, mind and body in the healing from trauma. Viking Press, 2014.
From 2010 to 2014 much of my efforts went into writing this book about what we have learned about traumatic stress, including childhood abuse and neglect, and its treatment. It has been the best selling book in psychiatry worldwide for the past five years, has been on the New York Times Science bestseller for 108 consecutive weeks, and has been translated into 36 languages.
D. Research Support 2000-present.
Current Research Support
Van der Kolk (91) 7/1/14-current Role: PI (10% FTE)
Pilot study examining the impact of neurofeedback on children 6-13 with histories of severe maltreatment, Multiple private funders
Van der Kolk 9/1/17- current. A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Multi-Site Phase 3 Study of Manualized MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy for the Treatment of Chronic, Severe to Extreme Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) MP16 and MAPP1 at Trauma Research Foundation Role: PI (15% FTE)
Past Research Support (last decade)
Affective Neuroscience Foundation
Van der Kolk (91) 1/1/11-7/1/14 Role: PI (20% FTE)
RTC on the capacity of neurofeedback on decreasing PTSD symptomatology and increase executive functioning in adults and adolescents with chronic histories of child maltreatment.
ANS Foundation Van der Kolk (91) 1/1/09-12/31/12 Role: PI (10% FTE)
Pilot study examining the impact of neurofeedback on adults and adolescents with chronic post-trauma dysregulation.
1R21AT003905-01A2 Van der Kolk (PI) 6/1/08-5/31/12 Role: PI (10% FTE)
Efficacy of Yoga for Treatment-Resistant PTSD, a randomized control trial of yoga versus attentional control for the treatment of chronic treatment-resistant PTSD. Outcome measures include behavioral and psychophyisological assessment.
1U79SM059314-01 Van der Kolk (Co-Director) 9/30/09-9/29/12 Role: PI (30% FTE)
Complex Trauma Treatment Network, a SAMHSA NCTSN Category II Training and Technical Assistance grant to provide intensive training and support to communities across the country on the assessment and treatment of child complex traumatic stress.
CDC 1 R49 CE000968-01 Van der Kolk (PI) 09/01/06-08/31/09 Role: PI (10% FTE)
RCT of Urban Improv-Intensive, A Youth Violence Prevention Program. Aims were to evaluate the effectiveness of a trauma-informed, improvisational theater-based tertiary prevention/intervention program in reducing engagement in and future exposure to interpersonal violence, including sexual violence, in urban middle-school youth cohorts at high risk of prior exposure to trauma and violence.
5 R01 MH58363-04 Van der Kolk (PI) 12/01/1999-12/31/2003 Role: PI.
Treatment Outcome of Fluoxetine vs. EMDR in PTSD.
The goal of this study was to evaluate the relative efficacy of a psychotherapy targeting traumatic memories with an SSRI in symptom reduction of Postraumatic Stress Disorder and related conditions.
97-MU-FX-K012, 05-S40 Van der Kolk (PI) 12/05/2001–09/30/2005
Hamilton Fish Youth Violence Prevention Consortium Grant
Hamilton Fish Institute, George Washington University
This goal of this study was to evaluate using controlled outcome design youth violence prevention programs for high-risk urban elementary and middle-school students. Role: PI