In a new study, researchers found rest following a traumatic event can reduce the subsequent development of involuntary ‘memory intrusions’, one of the hallmark symptoms in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The finding suggests memory disturbances in PTSD may be ameliorated by increased ‘consolidation’, which could shed new light on treatment and prevention.
The research was conducted by a team from University College London.
Over a lifetime, many people experience traumatic events but most people do not develop persistent trauma symptoms.
Identifying which mechanisms might contribute to memory intrusions in PTSD is important, as these disturbances comprise an important maintaining factor in the disorder.
In the study, the researchers presented 85 participants with emotionally negative videos, followed by either a period of wakeful rest or a simple control task—where participants were required to pay attention to numbers on a screen.
The videos comprised highly emotional content, such as badly injured people or serious accidents.
The team found that participants who had a period of rest following the viewing of negative videos reported fewer memory intrusions related to the videos over the following week.
In contrast, there was no difference between rest and the simple control task on a memory test, assessing how much participants remembered when they wanted to.
Rest and certain phases of sleep are known to increase processing in the hippocampus, a key region of the brain for memory, and which places memories in context.
According to the researchers, the results suggest that a strengthening of this contextual memory system is beneficial in preventing memory intrusions following trauma.
Specific brain systems could be targeted to reduce the development of PTSD and maybe that’s why treatments that focus on re-exposure and integrating the trauma with other information are beneficial.
The lead author of the study is Dr. Lone Hørlyck (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience).
The study is published in Scientific Reports.
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