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Establishing neurobiological markers of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is essential to aid in diagnosis and treatment development. Fear processing deficits are central to PTSD, and their neural signatures may be used as such markers.
Here, we conducted a meta-analysis of seven Pavlovian fear conditioning fMRI studies comparing 156 patients with PTSD and 148 trauma-exposed healthy controls (TEHC) using seed-based d-mapping, to contrast neural correlates of experimental phases, namely conditioning, extinction learning, and extinction recall.
Patients with PTSD, as compared to TEHCs, exhibited increased activation in the anterior hippocampus (extending to the amygdala) and medial prefrontal cortex during conditioning; in the anterior hippocampus-amygdala regions during extinction learning; and in the anterior hippocampus-amygdala and medial prefrontal areas during extinction recall. Yet, patients with PTSD have shown an overall decreased activation in the thalamus during all phases in this meta-analysis.
Findings from this metanalysis suggest that PTSD is characterized by increased activation in areas related to salience and threat, and lower activation in the thalamus, a key relay hub between subcortical areas. If replicated, these fear network alterations may serve as objective diagnostic markers for PTSD, and potential targets for novel treatment development, including pharmacological and brain stimulation interventions. Future longitudinal studies are needed to examine whether these observed network alteration in PTSD are the cause or the consequence of PTSD.
The hippocampus plays an important role in psychopathology and treatment outcome. While posterior hippocampus (PH) may be crucial for the learning process that exposure-based treatments require, affect-focused treatments might preferentially engage anterior hippocampus (AH). Previous studies have distinguished the different functions of these hippocampal sub-regions in memory, learning, and emotional processes, but not in treatment outcome. Examining two independent clinical trials, we hypothesized that anterior hippocampal volume would predict outcome of affect-focused treatment outcome [Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT); Panic-Focused Psychodynamic Psychotherapy (PFPP)], whereas posterior hippocampal volume would predict exposure-based treatment outcome [Prolonged Exposure (PE); Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT); Applied Relaxation Training (ART)].
Thirty-five patients with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and 24 with panic disorder (PD) underwent structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) before randomization to affect-focused (IPT for PTSD; PFPP for PD) or exposure-based treatments (PE for PTSD; CBT or ART for PD). AH and PH volume were regressed with clinical outcome changes.
Baseline whole hippocampal volume did not predict post-treatment clinical severity scores in any treatment. For affect-focused treatments, but not exposure-based treatments, anterior hippocampal volume predicted clinical improvement. Smaller AH correlated with greater affect-focused treatment improvement. Posterior hippocampal volume did not predict treatment outcome.
This is the first study to explore associations between hippocampal volume sub-regions and treatment outcome in PTSD and PD. Convergent results suggest that affect-focused treatment may influence the clinical outcome through the ‘limbic’ AH, whereas exposure-based treatments do not. These preliminary, theory-congruent, therapeutic findings require replication in a larger clinical trial.
Randomized control trials (RCTs) comparing attention control training (ACT) and attention bias modification (ABM) in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have shown mixed results. The current RCT extends the extant literature by comparing the efficacy of ACT and a novel bias-contingent-ABM (BC-ABM), in which direction of training is contingent upon the direction of pre-treatment attention bias (AB), in a sample of civilian patients with PTSD.
Fifty treatment-seeking civilian patients with PTSD were randomly assigned to either ACT or BC-ABM. Clinician and self-report measures of PTSD and depression, as well as AB and attention bias variability (ABV), were acquired pre- and post-treatment.
ACT yielded greater reductions in PTSD and depressive symptoms on both clinician-rated and self-reported measures compared with BC-ABM. The BC-ABM condition successfully shifted ABs in the intended training direction. In the ACT group, there was no significant change in ABV or AB from pre- to post-treatment.
The current RCT extends previous results in being the first to apply ABM that is contingent upon AB at pre-treatment. This personalized BC-ABM approach is associated with significant reductions in symptoms. However, ACT produces even greater reductions, thereby emerging as a promising treatment for PTSD.
Cognitive models of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) implicate threat-related attentional biases in the etiology and phenomenology of the disorder. However, extant attentional research using reaction time (RT)-based paradigms and measures has yielded mixed results. Eye-tracking methodology has emerged in recent years to overcome several inherent drawbacks of RT-based tasks, striving to better delineate attentional processes.
A systematic review of experimental studies examining threat-related attention biases in PTSD, using eye-tracking methodology and group-comparison designs, was conducted conforming to Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses (PRISMA) guidelines. Studies were selected following a systematic search for publications between 1980 and December 2017 in PsycINFO, MEDLINE and the National Center for PTSD Research's Published International Literature on Traumatic Stress (PILOTS) database. Additional records were identified by employing the Similar Articles feature in PubMed, and the Cited Reference Search in ISI Web of Science. Reference sections of review articles, book chapters and studies selected for inclusion were searched for further studies. Ongoing studies were also sought through Clinicaltrials.gov.
A total of 11 studies (n = 456 participants in total) were included in the final review. Results indicated little support for enhanced threat detection, hypervigilance and attentional avoidance. However, consistent evidence emerged for sustained attention on threat (i.e. attention maintenance) in PTSD.
This review is the first to systematically evaluate extant findings in PTSD emanating from eye-tracking studies employing group-comparison designs. Results suggest that sustained attention on threat might serve as a potential target for therapeutic intervention.
Cognitive–behavioral group therapy (CBGT) is a first-line treatment for social anxiety disorder (SAD). However, since many patients remain symptomatic post-treatment, there is a need for augmenting procedures. This randomized controlled trial (RCT) examined the potential augmentation effect of attention bias modification (ABM) for CBGT.
Fifty patients with SAD from three therapy groups were randomized to receive an 18-week standard CBGT with either ABM designed to shift attention away from threat (CBGT + ABM), or a placebo protocol not designed to modify threat-related attention (CBGT + placebo). Therapy groups took place in a large mental health center. Clinician and self-report measures of social anxiety and depression were acquired pre-treatment, post-treatment, and at 3-month follow-up. Attention bias was assessed at pre- and post-treatment.
Patients randomized to the CBGT + ABM group, relative to those randomized to the CBGT + placebo group, showed greater reductions in clinician-rated SAD symptoms post-treatment, with effects maintained at 3-month follow-up. Group differences were not evident for self-report or attention-bias measures, with similar reductions in both groups. Finally, reduction in attention bias did not mediate the association between group and reduction in Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale Structured Interview (LSAS) scores.
This is the first RCT to examine the possible augmenting effect of ABM added to group-based cognitive–behavioral therapy for adult SAD. Training patients’ attention away from threat might augment the treatment response to standard CBGT in SAD, a possibility that could be further evaluated in large-scale RCTs.
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