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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