Researchers reveal 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 our brain appears to rewire itself after these experiences. Understanding the mechanisms involved in these changes and how the brain learns about an environment and predicts threats and safety is a focus of the ZVR Lab at the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Rochester, which is led by assistant professor Benjamin Suarez- Jimenez, Ph.D.

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“We are learning more about how people exposed to trauma learn to distinguish between what is safe and what is not. Their brain is giving us insight into what might be going awry in specific mechanisms that are impacted by trauma exposure, especially when emotion is involved,” said Suarez-Jimenez, who began this work as a post-doctoral fellow in the lab of Yuval Neria, Ph.D., professor at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Their research, recently published in Communications Biology, identified 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 dominate networks of the brain.

“Knowing what to look for in the brain when someone is exposed to trauma could significantly advance treatments,” said Suarez-Jimenez, a co-first author with Xi Zhu, PhD, Assistant Professor of Clinical Neurobiology at Columbia, of this paper. “In this case, we know where a change is happening in the brain and how some people can work around that change. It is a marker of resilience.”

Adding the element of emotion

The possibility of threat can change how someone exposed to trauma reacts – researchers found this is the case in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as described in a recent study in Depression & Anxiety. Suarez-Jimenez, his fellow co-authors, and senior author Neria found 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.

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