New Insight into How the Brain Reacts to Trauma

Traumatic events occur regularly throughout the world, but the experience of trauma is subjective, and people can experience the same trauma differently. Similarly, trauma means different things to different people. The death of a loved one can be a traumatic event for some, but not others. A life-threatening illness or near-death car accident can evoke traumatic responses for some, but again, not for others.

Although most people who experience trauma go on to overcome it and are spared long-term negative effects, some develop posttraumatic stress (PTSD). The most common symptoms of PTSD are flashbacks of the trauma and intrusive thoughts related to the traumatic event. Why some people continue to experience the trauma through flashbacks and PTSD symptoms and others don’t is a question that has yet to be answered.

It is believed that the way in which the brain responds to the trauma as it occurs influences how one will later adjust. But to date, there are no studies that have looked at how neurological responses differ between people experiencing a trauma that will persist and those who experience one that will not.

To provide insight into how people neurologically process trauma, Corin Bourne of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford in the UK decided to conduct an experimental study involving 22 participants exposed to a trauma-inducing film. The participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging as they watched the film, which had highly emotionally charged and traumatic scenes. They then recorded their emotional reactions and any flashbacks during the week following the viewing of the film. Bourne compared the MRIs of the participants who had traumatic flashbacks to those of the participants who didn’t and found unique differences.

Specifically, Bourne noticed that flashback participants had higher levels of activation in the amygdala, anterior cortex, and thalamus, all regions involved in emotional processing, threat, fear, and mental imagery. These results provide, for the first time, a clue into how the brain determines which traumatic events will later occur in flashback and which will not.

Bourne noted that although there are many treatments designed to treat traumatic reactions in the weeks and months following trauma exposure, none exist that target the immediate traumatic response. “However,” he added, “Earlier-stage preventative interventions are still required for the first few hours or early days after trauma.” Understanding the neurological processes that occur at the time of trauma in those at risk for PTSD could help in the development of these types of treatments.

Bourne, C., C. E. Mackay, and E. A. Holmes. (2013). The neural basis of flashback formation: The impact of viewing trauma. Psychologica Medicine 43.7 (2013): 1521-32. ProQuest. Web.

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  • Gray


    July 4th, 2013 at 5:56 AM

    Wouldn’t just getting into therapy immediately following the traumatic event make a huge difference for some people? I mean, there are loads of people who have benefitted from therapy. I think that the ones who have the most problems are the ones who think that they can handle this alone and that they don’t need help. Obviously this is not the case for most of us. No matter how strong or how smart or how whatever we are. when something like this happens in life most of us are going to need a bit of a helping hand. And the sooner the better. The longer we allow something to fester then of course the more troubling that it will become to us in aspects of our lives that we may not have thought imaginable.

  • Susan


    July 5th, 2013 at 8:39 PM

    You seem to make the assumption that all counsel is equipped to deal with all types of ptsd. Or even that someone seeking help knows what questions to ask in their search for counsel. Getting the RIGHT help is often overshadowed by those WANTING to help.

  • alexis townes

    alexis townes

    July 5th, 2013 at 5:56 AM

    Too often I think that we focus on the physical harm that has been done while paying very little attention to the mental issues that could also come about.

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