Source: Yale University
Summary: It is commonly recognized that those who have experienced traumatic events such as brutal conflict, sexual assault, or domestic violence may develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which include intense anxiety, uncontrolled thoughts about the occurrence, and horrifying flashbacks.
It is commonly recognized that those who have experienced traumatic events such as brutal conflict, sexual assault, or domestic violence may develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which include intense anxiety, uncontrolled thoughts about the occurrence, and horrifying flashbacks. But when PTSD sufferers think back on these horrific experiences, what really is going on in their brains? Are they recalled in the same manner as, let’s say, a peaceful beach walk or the death of a beloved pet?
According to a recent study co-led by Yale researchers, people with PTSD really experience quite different brain activity when recalling traumatic memories than when recalling happy or “neutral” life events.
When participants in the study, which comprised 28 people with PTSD diagnoses, recalled more commonplace life events, researchers discovered that all participants’ brain patterns remained the same.
However, there were notable differences in each person’s brain reactions when they were reminded of painful experiences in the past.
“When people recall sad or neutral events from their past experiences, the brain exhibits highly synchronous activity among all PTSD patients,” stated Ilan Harpaz-Rotem, a Yale professor of psychology and psychiatry and the paper’s co-senior author.
The 28 participants in the study were asked a series of questions about their traumatic experiences, sad life events (such as losing a family member), and times when they felt at ease.
Written accounts of each patient’s experiences were read aloud to them while they had functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, which monitor blood flow-based brain activity.
When participants were recalled to calming or depressing moments in their past, the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for creating memories of our experiences, showed consistent patterns of activity in the hippocampus across all individuals, indicating a normal memory formation process.
However, when the participants in the group were told tales about their traumatic experiences, the parallels in hippocampus activity vanished.
Rather than the more synchronized patterns of brain activity during normal memory formation, each subject’s hippocampus showed highly unique and fragmented activity.
The findings, according to the researchers, may help explain why people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) struggle to coherently recollect horrific events from the past and may also suggest why these experiences may precipitate incapacitating symptoms.
According to Harpaz-Rotem, these realizations could assist psychotherapists in helping PTSD patients create narratives about their experiences that could help them get over the feeling that their trauma is an immediate threat.
Source: Yale University