Scientists find how trauma changes the brain

Credit: Julia Taubitz / Unsplash

In a study from the University of Rochester, scientists found how trauma changes the brain

Exposure to trauma can be life-changing—and researchers are learning more about how traumatic events may physically change our brains.

But these changes are not happening because of physical injury; rather, the brain appears to rewire itself after these experiences.

In the study, the team found changes in the salience network—a mechanism in the brain used for learning and survival—in people exposed to trauma (with and without psychopathologies, including PTSD, depression, and anxiety).

Using fMRI, the researchers recorded activity in the brains of participants as they looked at different-sized circles—only one size was associated with a small shock (or threat).

Along with the changes in the salience network, researchers found another difference—this one within the trauma-exposed resilient group.

They found the brains of people exposed to trauma without psychopathologies were compensating for changes in their brain processes by engaging the executive control network—one of the dominant networks of the brain.

The possibility of threat can change how someone exposed to trauma reacts.

A previous study found that patients with PTSD can complete the same task as someone without exposure to trauma when no emotion is involved.

However, when emotion invoked by a threat was added to a similar task, those with PTSD had more difficulty distinguishing between the differences.

In the current study, the team used the same methods as the other experiment—different circle sizes with one size linked to a threat in the form of a shock.

Using fMRI, researchers observed that people with PTSD had less signaling between the hippocampus (an area of the brain responsible for emotion and memory) and the salience network (a mechanism used for learning and survival).

They also detected less signaling between the amygdala (another area linked to emotion) and the default mode network (an area of the brain that activates when someone is not focused on the outside world).

These findings reflect the inability of a person with PTSD to effectively distinguish differences between the circles.

The team says it might be that in the real world, emotions overload PTSD patients reducing the cognitive ability to discriminate between safety, danger, or reward. It overgeneralizes towards danger.

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The study was conducted by Benjamin Suarez-Jimenez et al and published in Communications Biology.

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