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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