Posttraumatic stress (PTSD) is a condition evidenced by re-experiencing of traumatic events. People with PTSD may be hypersensitive to situations, stimuli, and memories that trigger recollection of trauma. They often cannot refocus their attention away from the trauma, so they find themselves re-experiencing it, with increased heart rate, anxiety, and even panic. For some, symptoms of PTSD can be so severe that the impact work, family, relationships, and daily functioning. However, there are many trauma survivors who do not develop PTSD. Understanding the emotional and neurological aspects of PTSD can help clinicians target conditions that contribute to PTSD in trauma survivors.
Gudrun Sartory of the Clinical Psychology Unit of the Department of Psychology at the University of Wuppertal in Germany wanted to find out if there were differences in neurological processes between trauma survivors with and without PTSD. Therefore, Sartory recently conducted a meta-analysis of 13 separate studies involving 145 individuals who had been exposed to trauma. The studies included neuroimaging data and focused on different regions of the brain active in PTSD response. Sartory found that although there were many similarities in brain functioning between the PTSD and non-PTSD participants, especially regional activation associated with anxiety, the PTSD participants had increased activation in the precuneus and retrosplenial cortex. Both of these regions affect reference processing and autobiographical recall. This finding suggests that PTSD participants had hypersensitive processing when presented with stimuli related to the trauma. Further, they were unable to shift their focus away from their autobiographical memories, suggesting a higher level of re-experiencing when compared to non-PTSD participants.
When the results were examined further, Sartory also discovered that the PTSD participants had deficits in areas responsible for sensory control. This finding also supports prior research suggesting that individuals with PTSD are less able to control their emotional response to trauma-related stimuli. This analysis, although broad in nature, did not take into consideration other neurological influences that could contribute to hypersensitivity in PTSD. Future research should examine all factors related to neurological activation to discover other variances between individuals with PTSD and those without. Until then, Sartory added, “The results suggest that the retrosplenial cortex has an important role in establishing and maintaining the trauma memory.”
Sartory G, Cwik J, Knuppertz H, Schürholt B, Lebens M, et al. (2013). In search of the trauma memory: A meta-analysis of functional neuroimaging studies of symptom provocation in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PLoS ONE 8(3): e58150. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058150
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