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How PTSD messes with your brain’s memory centers

Subjects with PTSD show increased involuntary memory recollection and decreased new information processing.

Image Credit: Photo by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is characterized, in part, by unwanted recollections and vivid emotional responses. This means PTSD subjects often suffer from intrusive and distressing memories that go hand in hand with confusing emotional states to unexpected stimuli. These are known as flashbacks in most instances.

Additionally, people with PTSD often report difficulty responding to new information or efficiently processing memories, which leads to disorganized thoughts and feeling overwhelmed. PTSD sufferers have challenges in focusing their attention, especially when unwanted memories are muddying the waters and making them feel stressed out.

Understanding the connections between PTSD and wanted or unwanted memories may shed light on the distressing events of flashbacks and overall decreased mental faculties. New therapies would be beneficial to anyone challenged with post-traumatic stress disorder if they worked to limit unwanted memory interruption and improve information processing

In this study, people with and without PTSD were given activities to do that involved pairing images, journal entries, and environmental sounds. When the researchers replayed variations of these sounds, the participants had both voluntary and involuntary memory recollections. During the examination, their brain activity was detected using MRI scans. To describe the types of memories they were having, participants answered a survey.

This study shows that both PTSD and non-PTSD subjects have similar brain areas responsible for their information processing and memory retrieval. But, in people with PTSD, it takes their brains longer to recall memories on purpose. This may help to explain the challenges experienced in integrating new information as memories.

If you think you might have PTSD, it helps to talk to someone – a trusted friend or a counselor. Here is a helpful article with the full criteria for PTSD. Image Source: Unsplash, Taylor Hernandez

Furthermore, the area of the brain responsible for involuntary memories is shown to be hyperactive, providing an explanation for the intrusive flashbacks that go hand in hand with post-traumatic stress disorder. Researchers also found increased activity in parts of the brain responsible for emotional reactions in the PTSD group, which hints at a tendency for fear responses and lower emotional regulation.

Studies like this have some limitations. First, there is always bias that comes from patients reporting their own symptoms. Second, the patients were considered “high-functioning,” which is not representative of all PTSD cases. However, these results demonstrate possible explanations for the emotionally vivid, intrusive memories experienced by PTSD sufferers. It also sheds light on their difficulties in rapidly integrating new information, because new data is not readily processed and converted to memories. This information, itself, is empowering and enlightening for PTSD sufferers who often suffer from feeling mentally inept and lacking thought control.

Further studies could be powerful for understanding PTSD treatment in patients by promoting efficient rehabilitation options that target the areas responsible for involuntary memories and emotional regulation. Learning techniques to help patients control their thoughts and emotions better, such as mindfulness and delayed emotional-response, could be a solution for PTSD sufferers struggling with unwanted memories.

Strengthening the brain pathways for voluntary versus involuntary memory retrieval would be beneficial for people  with PTSD. Meditation, regular exercise, as well as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) practices, may further benefit these changes in memory processing, directing emotions, and overall brain health.

Of course, these applications are limited by the individual with PTSD having the capabilities to focus their energy away from intrusive negative thought patterns in the first place. Until they have enough control over their thoughts to seek therapy, they cannot begin learning new grounding practices. Decreasing stress in the patient is key to promote focus so they can begin forming new mindfulness habits and promote memory health.

Study Information

Original study: Neural responses to emotional involuntary memories in posttraumatic stress disorder: Differences in timing and activity

Study was published on: May 2018

Study author(s): Shana A. Hall, Kaitlyn E. Brodarb, Kevin S. LaBarc, Dorthe Berntsend, David C. Rubinc

The study was done at: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (USA), University of Miami (USA), Duke University (USA), Aarhus University (Denmark)

The study was funded by: Danish National Research Foundation (DNRF89) and the National Institute of Mental Health (grant R01 MH066079)

Raw data availability: Not available

Featured image credit: Photo by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash

This summary was edited by: Gina Misra