Breakthrough Study Reveals Distinct Brain Responses to Traumatic Memories in PTSD
In a groundbreaking study conducted by researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Yale University, new insights into the nature of traumatic memories associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have emerged.
The findings, published recently in scientific journal, Nature Neuroscience, shed light on how the brain processes and stores traumatic memories differently from sad or neutral memories, opening avenues for potential advancements in PTSD, and ultimately C-PTSD, treatments.
The study focused on a small group of people diagnosed with PTSD, and examined real-life personal memories rather than relying on basic cognitive tests normally used. Participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while recalling scripted traumatic memories associated with their PTSD, alongside sad and calm memories. The study’s key revelation is the distinctive brain responses triggered by traumatic memories compared to sad ones.
Unlike sad memories, which activated the hippocampus (a region associated with regular memory) traumatic memories created reactions in the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), a brain area not traditionally linked to memory functions. This unprecedented insight challenges the previous assumptions about the nature of traumatic memories, suggesting that they may be a separate cognitive entity, possibly explaining their intrusive and vivid nature in people with PTSD.
According to senior author Daniela Schiller, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine, traumatic memories in PTSD often feel like a present experience rather than a distant recollection. This distinctive brain activation observed in the PCC corresponds to the intrusive and emotionally charged nature of traumatic memories.
The implications of this research are profound for PTSD treatment. Conventional therapy often focuses on constructing a clear narrative from fragmented traumatic memories. However, these findings encourage a paradigm shift, viewing trauma more as an experience than a memory. The study suggests a new therapeutic approach that aims to change the experience of recalling traumatic memories rather than modifying them as traditional methods attempt.
Schiller notes that this approach provides a clearer target for treatment and facilitates measurable changes in brain activity before and after therapeutic interventions. While the study’s findings are preliminary, Schiller emphasises the importance of further research with larger groups and expanded examination of real-life personal memories.
The new study gives us hope for better treatments for PTSD and C-PTSD. It shows that researchers are learning more about these conditions, and this gives us hope for better ways to understand, treat, and overcome the challenges of trauma-related disorders. As scientists keep exploring how the brain reacts to trauma, there’s a growing chance of finding new therapies that can lead to better results for people with PTSD and C-PTSD.
Perl, O., Duek, O., Kulkarni, K.R. et al. Neural patterns differentiate traumatic from sad autobiographical memories in PTSD. Nat Neurosci 26, 2226–2236 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41593-023-01483-5
Photo by Anna Shvets
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.