Posttraumatic stress (PTSD) most often develops as a result of being exposed to or a victim of a severe trauma. Symptoms of PTSD include hypervigilance to certain stimuli, behavioral and emotional avoidance, and frequent memories of the traumatic event. Although there is a large body of research establishing the neurological changes that occur as a result of trauma, including increased activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), there is little information revealing when those changes occur.
Maimu Alissa Rehbein of the Institute for Biomagnetism and Biosignalanysis at the University Hospital of Münster in Germany wanted to better understand how these changes develop in people with PTSD and more specifically, if they are a result of chronic PTSD or the trauma itself. Using seven adult trauma survivors and seven control subjects, Rehbein conducted neurological testing tests to assess brain activity.
The survivors enrolled in the study had all been the victims of a traumatic event in the past two months and had no prior history of trauma. They were all free of any other psychological problems prior to experiencing the trauma. The control subjects had no history of psychological issues or trauma. Rehbein showed the participants pictures designed to elicit various emotions and assessed their emotional and neurological reaction to the pictures.
She found that the trauma survivors had high levels of increased PFC activity compared to the control participants. She also noticed that the survivors engaged in more emotional avoidance than the controls when exposed to negative stimuli.
The results of this study provide new information into the etiology of PTSD. Even though their traumas had only occurred weeks before they participated in this study, the survivors’ neurological responses and hypervigilance were similar to those neural patterns found in people with chronic PTSD. This could indicate that the changes that occur in the PFC and emotional responses do not occur over a long period of time and exclusively as a result of PTSD, but rather occur in the immediate aftermath of trauma and may be in large part, a result of the trauma itself. If these findings can be replicated, they should prompt research into new treatment approaches. Rehbein added, “Future studies could try to investigate which factors promote and which prevent such immediate changes in trauma network activation.”
Burgmer, M., Rehbein, M.A., Wrenger, M., Kandil, J., Heuft, G., et al. (2013). Early affective processing in patients with acute posttraumatic stress disorder: Magnetoencephalographic correlates. PLoS ONE 8(8): e71289. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0071289
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