Brain Response Linked to Risk and Severity of PTSD

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 Brain Response Linked to Risk and Severity of PTSD

 Jim Windell

            Scientists have known that only a subset of trauma survivors develop PTSD. They also know that PTSD is associated with increased sensitivity to threats and decreased ability to engage neural structures retrieving emotional memories.

           However, scientists don’t know who is likely to develop more severe PTSD symptoms. Nor do they know how the processes of increased sensitivity to threats and decreased ability to engage neural structures retrieving emotional memories interact to increase the risk for developing PTSD.

           To better understand these processes, a recent study was carried to better understand these concerns. The research results were published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

           The research was part of the national Advancing Understanding of RecOvery afteR traumA (AURORA) Study, a multi-institution project funded by the National Institutes of Health, non-profit funding organizations such as One Mind, and partnerships with leading tech companies. The organizing principal investigator is Samuel McLean, M.D., M.P.H., professor of psychiatry and emergency medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and director of the UNC Institute for Trauma Recovery.

           AURORA allows researchers to leverage data from patient participants who enter emergency departments at hospitals across the country after experiencing trauma, such as car accidents or other serious incidents. The ultimate goal of AURORA is to spur on the development and testing of preventive and treatment interventions for individuals who have experienced traumatic events.

           Using brain-imaging techniques coupled with laboratory and survey-based tests for trauma, researchers in this study found that the individuals with less activity in their hippocampus and greatest defensive responses to startling events following trauma had the most severe symptoms. In other words, in the initial days and weeks after experiencing trauma, individuals facing potentially threatening situations who had less activity in their hippocampus – a brain structure critical for forming memories of situations that are dangerous and that are safe – developed more severe PTSD symptoms.

           According to Bura Tanriverdi, the lead researcher on the study and graduate student at Temple, “In these individuals, greater defensive reactions to threats may bias them against learning information about what is happening so that they can discern what is safe and what is dangerous. These findings highlight an important PTSD biomarker focused on how people form and retrieve memories after trauma.”

           Dr. Samuel McLean, an author of the study, said that “These latest findings add to our list of AURORA discoveries that are helping us understand the differences between individuals who go on to develop posttraumatic stress disorder and those who do not. Studies focusing on the early aftermath of trauma are critical because we need a better understanding of how PTSD develops so we can prevent PTSD and best treat PTSD.”

           Vishnu Murty, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Temple University, added that “These findings are important both to identify specific brain responses associated with vulnerability to develop PTSD, and to identify potential treatments focused on memory processes for these individuals to prevent or treat PTSD.”

           To read the original study, find it with this reference:

Tanriverdi, B., Gregory, D. F., Olino, T. M., Ely, T. D., Harnett, N. G., van Rooij, S., Lebois, L., Seligowski, A. V., Jovanovic, T., Ressler, K. J., House, S. L., Beaudoin, F. L., An, X., Neylan, T. C., Clifford, G. D., Linnstaedt, S. D., Germine, L. T., Bollen, K. A., Rauch, S. L., Haran, J. P., … Murty, V. P. (2022). Hippocampal Threat Reactivity Interacts with Physiological Arousal to Predict PTSD Symptoms. The Journal of Neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 42(34), 6593–6604. Advance online publication.

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