Individuals have different reactions to trauma. People who have experienced significant childhood trauma, including childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, or emotional abuse may develop serious psychological problems as a result. Some people who suffer the loss of a loved one can develop symptoms of depression and children of depressed parents may have impaired ability to express their emotions, leading to externalizing or internalizing behaviors. When trauma affects daily functioning and leads to extreme anxiety, it can be seen as a predictor of posttraumatic stress (PTSD). And although it has been well established that people with PTSD have decreased emotional regulation via hyper-vigilant threat bias and limited brain region accessibility, it is less clear whether these same deficits are present in individuals without PTSD who have experienced trauma.
Karina. S. Blair of the National Institute of Mental Health and the Department of Health and Human Services in Maryland recently conducted a study to determine the difference in parietal and frontal cortex accessibility in individuals with and without PTSD. Blair performed MRIs on 14 trauma-exposed individuals without PTSD, 14 with PTSD and 19 nonclinical participants who were not exposed to trauma. She measured their brain activity while they performed attention tasks using the Stroop test and found that there were significant differences between the groups. Specifically, the individuals with PTSD had difficulty performing the task when compared to the non-PTSD and control groups. They had limited accessibility to certain regions of the brain responsible for emotion regulation. However, other regions caused overstimulation of attention, which when focused on threat could perpetuate symptoms of PTSD.
When Blair looked at the control group, she found more cortex accessibility and better performance on the Stroop. But surprisingly, the non-PTSD trauma exposed group had enhanced, not diminished levels of cortex accessibility and brain recruitment during the Stroop task. “These regions of the lateral superior and inferior frontal cortices and parietal cortex are repeatedly implicated in emotional regulation,” said Blair. Perhaps this enhanced recruitment acted as a buffer, insulating individuals exposed to trauma from developing symptoms of PTSD. Blair believes that although this finding has positive implications, more work needs to be done in this area to determine how to prevent or decrease PTSD in individuals who have experienced trauma.
Blair, K. S., et al. (2013). Cognitive control of attention is differentially affected in trauma-exposed individuals with and without post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychological Medicine 43.1 (2013): 85-95. ProQuest. Web.
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