Does PTSD Cause Learning Disabilities?

Psychological problems can create cognitive impairments such as memory loss, disorganized thinking, and confusion. These conditions are usually temporary and a direct result of symptoms related to issues such as depression, bipolar, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or anxiety, among others. But emerging research suggests that posttraumatic stress (PTSD) can also affect specific areas of the brain, in particular, the hippocampus and the surrounding medial temporal lobes (MTLs). Although some research has looked at cognitive functioning in relation to PTSD, few studies have focused specifically on learning tasks that tax the hippocampus and MTLs. To address this gap in the literature, Einat Levy-Gigi from the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers University-Newark in New Jersey recently conducted a study that assessed how well individuals with PTSD performed on learning tasks compared to individuals without PTSD.

For the study, Levy-Gigi enlisted five different samples of participants with and without trauma exposure and with and without PTSD. The participants were analyzed based on learning experiments drawn from the Acquired Equivalence Task to determine if PTSD affected their cognitive performance. Levy-Gigi found that the participants with PTSD and those without were all able to complete the training phase of the task, but those with PTSD performed more poorly on the actual learning test when compared to those without PTSD. This finding held true regardless of ethnicity, as the participants were gathered from various cultural backgrounds. Additionally, the type of trauma exposure, which varied among participants, did not affect cognitive performance.

The results of this study support other research that suggests that PTSD may influence not only the symptoms of other mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, or stress, but also learning. Levy-Gigi believes that these findings shed light on a broader range of impairments related to PTSD that may be physiological in origin. Because the participants in this study varied in regard to symptom presence and trauma exposure, the results demonstrate that the way in which people learn to cope with traumatic events, and not just the presence of PTSD symptoms, can influence future cognitive abilities. Levy-Gigi added, “Future work is needed to test the possibility that performance on the Acquired Equivalence Task can predict which individuals may benefit most from cognitive–behavioral treatment.”

Levy-Gigi, E., Kéri, S., Myers, C. E., Lencovsky, Z., Sharvit-Benbaji, H., Orr, S. P., et al. (2012). Individuals with posttraumatic stress disorder show a selective deficit in generalization of associative learning. Neuropsychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029361

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    August 9th, 2012 at 7:15 PM

    “the way in which people learn to cope with traumatic events, and not just the presence of PTSD symptoms, can influence future cognitive abilities.”

    This has to be the deal-breaker in my opinion.So many people have problems.Why,everybody does!But the way we take them in our stride,the way we cope with them and our general attitude towards a problem are what dictate how much it actually affects us!

    Having been an optimistic person all my life,I am surprised at how easily people lose the plot due to a problem that I would label as something not too big.It all depends on how we take it!

  • Denise R

    Denise R

    June 28th, 2017 at 12:13 PM

    First, I would like to echo that those with PTSD need a positive “can do” attitude is rude.
    Second: Has anyone found any deeper research on a skill set that can be adapted to reverse or abate the trauma in the memory centers that cause PTSD?
    Thirdly: Can anyone suggest research relating to PTSD exacerbating Non Verbal learning disability?

  • Saul


    August 10th, 2012 at 4:24 AM

    Since most learning diabilities are more often diagnosed in younger people, I am not sure that all of them would have all had something traumatic happen to them in life that would have resulted in PTSD?
    I get it that after you are an adult and have experienced an event like this that it could definitely have a profound influence over how you absorb and take in information and process that information. It could leave you feeling numb to evevrything around you, so that when you are trying to learn a new skil or piece of information this could be made more difficult for you resulting from PTSD. But in children I guess I am not sure that this would always be applicable.

  • landon p

    landon p

    August 10th, 2012 at 11:10 AM

    Not beyond the realm of possibility
    I know that when I am experiencing even the smallest bit of stress it can have a definite drawback to how I can focus, or not in most cases, and cause me to dwell only on the small things eating away at me
    I have never been in a state of PTSD but I would imagine that it would take the things that I commonly feel and multiply that exponentially making it even harder to concentrate on the tasks at hand.

  • lightyear


    August 10th, 2012 at 1:10 PM

    here’s my theory:
    even short term depression can make us incapable of learning things because our mind is so preoccupied with what’s causing the depression.this has happened to me.

    and so,something like ptsd would definitely have a longer effect on our learning skills and abilities!

  • Thomas


    August 11th, 2012 at 4:27 AM

    There is a time when this could become very critical especially as more veterans from recent wars begin to try to re-enter everyday society and the workplace.
    More and more of the will have the opportunity to further their educations so that they will then be more marketable and employable in an increasingly advanced work market.
    To do this many of them will take advantage of the military programs which will allow them to go back to school and pursue a degree in a field that could really serve to benefit from later on.
    But if these are soldiers struggling with PTSD from their time in the military, and they are now headed to the classroom, wouldn’t you say that if indeed PTSD can lead to certain learning diabilities, these men and women could face quite a challenge when it comes to pursuing their education?

  • Russell R

    Russell R

    March 14th, 2017 at 8:18 PM

    You are 100% correct. I am a disabled soldier with PTSD. I am currently in college and doing a report on PTSD and learning disabilities. Its very difficult and wide ranges from remembering what I just learned 1o to 20 minutes ago or concentrating enough to finish a task. I have had a million studies and VA all the time. The brain can only repair so much before it has to create a new way of function.

  • Marjorie B C.

    Marjorie B C.

    October 16th, 2018 at 6:21 AM

    Russell, I’m very interested in what you’ve discovered. Are you willing/able to share your paper/studies with me?

  • molly andrews

    molly andrews

    August 11th, 2012 at 4:03 PM

    I guess that I so closely associate learning disabilities with children who are school aged that I never gave any thought to how they could impact an adult too. That could really hurt in today’s economy!

  • Jerry


    August 12th, 2012 at 6:03 AM

    I know that when I came home from Vietnam I was innundated with bad dreams and stress that I never knew was going to come on untile it hit me like a ton of bricks.

    I could barely remember how to tie my shoes some days, much leass tackle challenging subjects that learning diabilities could affect.

  • Donna J

    Donna J

    August 13th, 2012 at 4:28 AM

    As I watched a brother struggle with PTSD, I realized very quickly that after the experiences that he had that brought this on, he was never the same person. Not only did his happiness completely fade, but he also became almost catatonic. Not catatonic in the true sense I suppose, but he was never happy again. And he would never seek help, which I am sure what led to his early and untimely death. he couldn’t get past it on his own but was too proud to ask for help from someone else.

  • Sherry Porubcansky

    Sherry Porubcansky

    August 20th, 2012 at 9:01 AM

    You are correct in your assumption that individuals’ success in coping with trauma varies widely. It’s a different situation – immature, ignorant, and potentially harmful – to assume you have a complete awareness of anyone’s struggles dealing with trauma. Because people like you rush to judgement without any knowledge, education, or empathy, people like me – someone who survived father/daughter incest most weekends from age 3-12 with a knife held to my throat – could be devastated by such offhand, thoughtless remarks.

    I’m just asking you not to judge till you’ve walked a mile in my shoes. And I’d be happy to do the same for you.

  • Sherry Porubcansky

    Sherry Porubcansky

    August 20th, 2012 at 9:06 AM

    Clarification: my comment was in reply to the one left by Ashley.

  • Johnny


    May 2nd, 2013 at 8:42 AM

    I learned I have learning disabilities related to severe anxiety and complex PTSD from childhood. I have done much introspection and realized much of learning issues came from my father constantly telling me how much of a know-it-all or how stupid I was. My father dropped out of high when he was 16 to help on his family’s dairy cattle farm after his father died. He finally told me a few months before his death that he said I was a know-it-all because all people my age were know-it-alls. He would not teach me how to do things on the farm because he did not want me to learn.

    The things I learned are: (1) Some illnesses have a source in a family member and/or person with a illness, (2) teachers would accuse me of not trying in school when I was trying but had a disability, (3) learning problems can affect someone at work, (4) my learning disability is misunderstood or people want to make judgements instead of trying to understand.

    Learning to understand this ability has given me more empathy to other’s plight and has helped me grow as a person.

  • Melinda


    May 6th, 2013 at 1:36 AM

    Has there been any treatments or any way to help patients with learning disabilities due to ptsd?

  • Richard


    May 21st, 2014 at 1:41 PM

    two years ago, I was misdiagnosed with Adult ADHD/I. I was on Adderall for most of this time, and decided that it just was not working, so I took some time off from work and went to go see a DBT therapist. After about 6 sessions, I found out that my problems stemmed from the abuse I went through, with both of my parents, when I was a child. I was told that the abuse was so severe there my symptoms were caused by PTSD. I have always had a lot of potential and I felt this, but my grades in school and my focus have always been very poor. this was due to me, telling myself that I wasn’t good enough and/or smart enough. Now I am back in school, I can focus and am getting straight A’s in College. I will be graduating in a few years but I actually enjoy going to school rather than being afraid of failing. Don’t get me wrong, ADHD is real and through many support groups, I met people brilliant people, who were suffering from it. But this was not my reality. Hopefully this helps someone.

  • Shelly


    December 1st, 2015 at 2:34 PM

    I have a 9 yr old who is struggling with school.. in 2013 he witnessed his father have a major heaet attack. He didn’t die but the fear of death for my son begun. We have since been diagnosed as bipolar, adhd, odd on top of ptsd. Therapy has occured.. school is struggling. How do we help him ..with learning

  • Kerry D.

    Kerry D.

    January 1st, 2017 at 12:51 AM

    He will need to process what he experienced before he can fully move on.

  • Russell R

    Russell R

    March 14th, 2017 at 8:23 PM

    I am soldier with PTSD in college. Anyone that says this is temporary or can be fixed with a optimistic can do attitude is ignorant. Sorry, read some comments above. My brain no longer functions the way it use to. My memory is terrible, I can only concentrate for certain periods of time. This has been a 10 year process and currently doing a study on it to see if I cant find something to help out enough to get through college. I have noticed my brain has created new pathways in order to compensate or function, however with anything in life there are faults and side effects. Then your stress and frustrations do increase the difficulties regardless of your coping skills. I have a daughter to take care of so believe me when I say soldiers will do everything they can to adapt and survive when welcomed back in to our society.

  • Aimee


    May 6th, 2018 at 7:09 AM

    I am so proud of all the survivors who have commented on this thread. I have severe PTSD due to extreme childhood trauma, homelessness, and frequent assault. I have tried to make my own life better through education and I am now pursuing a PhD. Like others have said, PTSD is a learning disability. I struggle to concentrate, I get afraid of finishing tasks, I suffer from frequent headaches and so on. It sounds like complaining but it’s what I live with every day. It’s so much more than just attitude — I fight to be as positive as possible, and take responsibility for everything that I can — I’ve achieved amazing things in the past 18 years but it doesn’t change the fact that I have a neurological disorder. Other people’s blame and criticism and judgement do not help that, it makes it worse. If you don’t know what it’s like to live with every day you have no right to pass judgement on others — you never know what will happen to you in the future.

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