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Dissociative symptoms present transdiagnostically and are related to poor clinical outcome. Research into the biological correlates of dissociation remains limited. This editorial summarises and discusses papers from this themed series of BJPsych Open that contribute to unravelling the biological correlates of dissociative symptomatology with the aim of improving treatment and treatment outcome.
Memory function is at the core of the psychopathology of dissociative identity disorder (DID), but little is known about its psychobiological correlates.
This study aims to investigate whether memory function in DID differs between dissociative identity states
Behavioural data and neural activation patterns were assessed in 92 sessions during an n-back working memory task. Participants were people with genuine diagnosed DID (n = 14), DID-simulating controls (n = 16) and a paired control group (post-traumatic stress disorder (n = 16), healthy controls (n = 16)). Both DID groups participated as authentic or simulated neutral and trauma-related identity states. Reaction times and errors of omission were analysed with repeated measures ANOVA. Working memory neural activation (main working memory and linear load) was investigated for effects of identity state, participant group and their interaction.
Identity state-dependent behavioural performance and neural activation was found. DID simulators made fewer errors of omission than those with genuine DID. Regarding the prefrontal parietal network, main working memory in the left frontal pole and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (Brodmann area 44) was activated in all three simulated neutral states, and in trauma-related identity states of DID simulators, but not those with genuine DID or post-traumatic stress disorder; for linear load, trauma-related identity states of those with genuine DID did not engage the parietal regions.
Behavioural performance and neural activation patterns related to working memory in DID are dependent on the dissociative identities involved. The narrowed consciousness of trauma-related identity states, with a proneness to re-experiencing traumatising events, may relate to poorer working memory functioning.
Increasing numbers of adolescents seek help for gender-identity questions. Consequently, requests for medical treatments, such as puberty suppression, are growing. However, studies investigating the neurobiological substrate of gender incongruence (when birth-assigned sex and gender identity do not align) are scarce, and knowledge about the effects of puberty suppression on the developing brain of transgender youth is limited.
Here we cross-sectionally investigated sex and gender differences in regional fractional anisotropy (FA) as measured by diffusion MR imaging, and the impact of puberty on alterations in the white-matter organization of 35 treatment-naive prepubertal children and 41 adolescents with gender incongruence, receiving puberty suppression. The transgender groups were compared with 79 age-matched, treatment-naive cisgender (when sex and gender align) peers.
We found that transgender adolescents had lower FA in the bilateral inferior fronto-occipital fasciculus (IFOF), forceps major and corpus callosum than cisgender peers. In addition, average FA values of the right IFOF correlated negatively with adolescents' cumulative dosage of puberty suppressants received. Of note, prepubertal children also showed significant FA group differences in, again, the right IFOF and left cortico-spinal tract, but with the reverse pattern (transgender > cisgender) than was seen in adolescents.
Importantly, our results of lower FA (indexing less longitudinal organization, fiber coherence, and myelination) in the IFOF of gender-incongruent adolescents replicate prior findings in transgender adults, suggesting a salient neural correlate of gender incongruence. Findings highlight the complexity with which (pubertal) sex hormones impact white-matter development and add important insight into the neurobiological substrate associated with gender incongruence.
Studies investigating the structure of the amygdala in relation to dissociation in psychiatric disorders are limited and have reported normal or preserved, increased or decreased global volumes. Thus, a more detailed investigation of the amygdala is warranted. Amygdala global and subregional volumes were compared between individuals with dissociative identity disorder (DID: n = 32) and healthy controls (n = 42). Analyses of covariance did not show volumetric differences between the DID and control groups. Although several unknowns make it challenging to interpret our findings, we propose that the finding of normal amygdala volume is a genuine finding because other studies using this data-set have presented robust morphological aberrations in relation to the diagnosis of DID.
Little is known about the neural correlates of dissociative amnesia, a transdiagnostic symptom mostly present in the dissociative disorders and core characteristic of dissociative identity disorder (DID). Given the vital role of the hippocampus in memory, a prime candidate for investigation is whether total and/or subfield hippocampal volume can serve as biological markers of dissociative amnesia.
A total of 75 women, 32 with DID and 43 matched healthy controls (HC), underwent structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Using Freesurfer (version 6.0), volumes were extracted for bilateral global hippocampus, cornu ammonis (CA) 1–4, the granule cell molecular layer of the dentate gyrus (GC-ML-DG), fimbria, hippocampal−amygdaloid transition area (HATA), parasubiculum, presubiculum and subiculum. Analyses of covariance showed volumetric differences between DID and HC. Partial correlations exhibited relationships between the three factors of the dissociative experience scale scores (dissociative amnesia, absorption, depersonalisation/derealisation) and traumatisation measures with hippocampal global and subfield volumes.
Hippocampal volumes were found to be smaller in DID as compared with HC in bilateral global hippocampus and bilateral CA1, right CA4, right GC-ML-DG, and left presubiculum. Dissociative amnesia was the only dissociative symptom that correlated uniquely and significantly with reduced bilateral hippocampal CA1 subfield volumes. Regarding traumatisation, only emotional neglect correlated negatively with bilateral global hippocampus, bilateral CA1, CA4 and GC-ML-DG, and right CA3.
We propose decreased CA1 volume as a biomarker for dissociative amnesia. We also propose that traumatisation, specifically emotional neglect, is interlinked with dissociative amnesia in having a detrimental effect on hippocampal volume.
Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is a severely debilitating disorder. Despite recognition in the current and past versions of the DSM, DID remains a controversial psychiatric disorder, which hampers its diagnosis and treatment. Neurobiological evidence regarding the aetiology of DID supports clinical observations that it is a severe form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
To examine the association between childhood trauma and work functioning, and to elucidate to what extent this association can be accounted for by depression and/or anxiety.
Data of 1,649 working participants were derived from the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety (NESDA, n = 2,981). Childhood trauma (emotional neglect, psychological, physical, and sexual abuse before age 16) was assessed with a structured interview and work functioning, in terms of absenteeism and presenteeism, with the Health and Labor Questionnaire Short Form (SF-HLQ) and the World Health Organization Disability Assessment Schedule II (WHODAS-II), respectively. Depressive and/or anxiety disorders were assessed with the Composite Interview Diagnostic Instrument (CIDI). Mediation analyses were conducted.
At baseline, 44.8% reported to have experienced childhood trauma. Workers with the highest childhood trauma level showed significantly (p < 0.001) more absenteeism as well as more presenteeism. Mediation analyses revealed that indirect effects between the childhood trauma index and both work indices were significantly mediated by current depressive disorder (p = 0.023 and p < 0.001, respectively) and current comorbid depression-anxiety (p = 0.020 and p < 0.001, respectively), with the latter accounting for the largest effects (PM = 0.23 and PM = 0.29, respectively). No significant mediating role in this relationship was found for current anxiety disorder and remitted depressive and/or anxiety disorder.
Persons with childhood trauma have significantly reduced work functioning in terms of absenteeism and presenteeism. This seems to be largely accounted for by current depressive disorders and current comorbid depression-anxiety.
The importance of the hippocampus and amygdala for disrupted emotional memory formation in depression is well-recognized, but it remains unclear whether functional abnormalities are state-dependent and whether they are affected by the persistence of depressive symptoms.
Thirty-nine patients with major depressive disorder and 28 healthy controls were included from the longitudinal functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) sub-study of the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety. Participants performed an emotional word-encoding and -recognition task during fMRI at baseline and 2-year follow-up measurement. At baseline, all patients were in a depressed state. We investigated state-dependency by relating changes in brain activation over time to changes in symptom severity. Furthermore, the effect of time spent with depressive symptoms in the 2-year interval was investigated.
Symptom change was linearly associated with higher activation over time of the left anterior hippocampus extending to the amygdala during positive and negative word-encoding. Especially during positive word encoding, this effect was driven by symptomatic improvement. There was no effect of time spent with depression in the 2-year interval on change in brain activation. Results were independent of medication- and psychotherapy-use.
Using a longitudinal within-subjects design, we showed that hippocampal–amygdalar activation during emotional memory formation is related to depressive symptom severity but not persistence (i.e. time spent with depression or ‘load’), suggesting functional activation patterns in depression are not subject to functional ‘scarring’ although this hypothesis awaits future replication.
Childhood maltreatment (CM) plays an important role in the development of major depressive disorder (MDD). The aim of this study was to examine whether CM severity and type are associated with MDD-related brain alterations, and how they interact with sex and age.
Within the ENIGMA-MDD network, severity and subtypes of CM using the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire were assessed and structural magnetic resonance imaging data from patients with MDD and healthy controls were analyzed in a mega-analysis comprising a total of 3872 participants aged between 13 and 89 years. Cortical thickness and surface area were extracted at each site using FreeSurfer.
CM severity was associated with reduced cortical thickness in the banks of the superior temporal sulcus and supramarginal gyrus as well as with reduced surface area of the middle temporal lobe. Participants reporting both childhood neglect and abuse had a lower cortical thickness in the inferior parietal lobe, middle temporal lobe, and precuneus compared to participants not exposed to CM. In males only, regardless of diagnosis, CM severity was associated with higher cortical thickness of the rostral anterior cingulate cortex. Finally, a significant interaction between CM and age in predicting thickness was seen across several prefrontal, temporal, and temporo-parietal regions.
Severity and type of CM may impact cortical thickness and surface area. Importantly, CM may influence age-dependent brain maturation, particularly in regions related to the default mode network, perception, and theory of mind.
A diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder (DID) is controversial and prone to under- and misdiagnosis. From the moment of seeking treatment for symptoms to the time of an accurate diagnosis of DID individuals received an average of four prior other diagnoses and spent 7 years, with reports of up to 12 years, in mental health services.
To investigate whether data-driven pattern recognition methodologies applied to structural brain images can provide biomarkers to aid DID diagnosis.
Structural brain images of 75 participants were included: 32 female individuals with DID and 43 matched healthy controls. Individuals with DID were recruited from psychiatry and psychotherapy out-patient clinics. Probabilistic pattern classifiers were trained to discriminate cohorts based on measures of brain morphology.
The pattern classifiers were able to accurately discriminate between individuals with DID and healthy controls with high sensitivity (72%) and specificity (74%) on the basis of brain structure. These findings provide evidence for a biological basis for distinguishing between DID-affected and healthy individuals.
We propose a pattern of neuroimaging biomarkers that could be used to inform the identification of individuals with DID from healthy controls at the individual level. This is important and clinically relevant because the DID diagnosis is controversial and individuals with DID are often misdiagnosed. Ultimately, the application of pattern recognition methodologies could prevent unnecessary suffering of individuals with DID because of an earlier accurate diagnosis, which will facilitate faster and targeted interventions.
Declaration of interest
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
Psychosis is characterized by problems in social functioning that exist well before illness onset, and in individuals at clinical high risk (CHR) for psychosis. Trust is an essential element for social interactions that is impaired in psychosis. In the trust game, chronic patients showed reduced baseline trust, impaired response to positive social feedback, and attenuated brain activation in reward and mentalizing areas. We investigated whether first-episode psychosis patients (FEP) and CHR show similar abnormalities in the neural and behavioral mechanisms underlying trust.
Twenty-two FEP, 17 CHR, and 43 healthy controls performed two trust games, with a cooperative and an unfair partner in the fMRI scanner. Region of interest analyses were performed on mentalizing and reward processing areas, during the investment and outcome phases of the games.
Compared with healthy controls, FEP and CHR showed reduced baseline trust, but like controls, learned to trust in response to cooperative and unfair feedback. Symptom severity was not associated with baseline trust, however in FEP associated with reduced response to feedback. The only group differences in brain activation were that CHR recruited the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) more than FEP and controls during investment in the unfair condition. This hyper-activation in CHR was associated with greater symptom severity.
Reduced baseline trust may be associated with risk for psychotic illness, or generally with poor mental health. Feedback learning is still intact in CHR and FEP, as opposed to chronic patients. CHR however show distinct neural activation patterns of hyper-activation of the TPJ.
There is accumulating evidence for the role of fronto-striatal and associated circuits in obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) but limited and conflicting data on alterations in cortical thickness.
To investigate alterations in cortical thickness and subcortical volume in OCD.
In total, 412 patients with OCD and 368 healthy adults underwent magnetic resonance imaging scans. Between-group analysis of covariance of cortical thickness and subcortical volumes was performed and regression analyses undertaken.
Significantly decreased cortical thickness was found in the OCD group compared with controls in the superior and inferior frontal, precentral, posterior cingulate, middle temporal, inferior parietal and precuneus gyri. There was also a group x age interaction in the parietal cortex, with increased thinning with age in the OCD group relative to controls.
Our findings are partially consistent with earlier work, suggesting that group differences in grey matter volume and cortical thickness could relate to the same underlying pathology of OCD. They partially support a frontostriatal model of OCD, but also suggest that limbic, temporal and parietal regions play a role in the pathophysiology of the disorder. The group x age interaction effects may be the result of altered neuroplasticity.
Although adjuvant chemotherapy (CT) for breast cancer (BC) is associated with very late side-effects on cognition and brain function, studies on adverse effects of specific treatment regimens are scarce. Here, neurotoxicity profiles after different treatment strategies were compared in BC survivors randomized to high-dose (HI) or conventional-dose (CON-) CT, in women treated with radiotherapy (RT) -only and a healthy control (HC) group. We administered a neurocognitive test battery, a planning fMRI task (Tower of London) and episodic memory fMRI task (Paired Associates paradigm) in BC survivors who received CON-CT (n=24) and HC (n=27). Data were compared to BC survivors who received HI-CT (n=17) and RT-only (n=15) and who were previously assessed. Testing took place ±11.5 years post-CT. Furthermore, neurocognitive data were compared to neurocognitive data acquired ≤2 years post-treatment. Cognitive assessment revealed sustained cognitive decline in 10.5% of HI-CT, 8.3% of CON-CT, 6.7% of RT-only patients and 0% in the HC. Hypoactivation was found in task-related prefrontal and parietal areas for both CT-groups versus RT-only, with HI-CT showing more pronounced hypoactivation than CON-CT, combined with worse task performance. RT-only survivors performed at a similar level to HC while showing hyperactivation in task-related brain areas. Long after treatment, CT is associated with cognitive problems and task-related hypoactivation that depend on the specific cytotoxic regimen. This worse performance in patients who received CT could be explained by impaired brain functioning that is more severe with more intense CT. (JINS, 2015, 21, 50–61)
The need for symmetry and ordering objects related to a “just right”-feeling is a common symptom in Tourette's syndrome (TS) and resembles symmetry behavior in obsessive-compulsive disorder, but its pathophysiology is unknown. We used a symptom provocation paradigm to investigate the neural correlates of symmetry behavior in TS and hypothesized the involvement of frontal-striatal and limbic brain areas.
Pictures of asymmetrically and symmetrically arranged objects were presented in randomized blocks (4 blocks of each condition) to 14 patients with TS and 10 matched healthy controls (HC). A H215O positron emission tomography scan was acquired during each stimulus block, resulting in 8 scans per subject. After each scan, state anxiety and symmetry behavior (the urge to rearrange objects) were measured using a visual analogue scale.
During the asymmetry condition, TS patients showed increased regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) in the anterior cingulate cortex, supplementary motor area, and inferior frontal cortex, whereas HC showed increased rCBF in the visual cortex, primary motor cortex, and dorsal prefrontal cortex. Symmetry ratings during provocation correlated positively with orbitofrontal activation in the TS group and sensorimotor activation in the HC group, and negatively with dorsal prefrontal activity in HC.
Results suggest that both motor and limbic circuits are involved in symmetry behavior in TS. Motor activity may relate to an urge to move or perform tics, and limbic activation may indicate that asymmetry stimuli are salient for TS patients. In contrast, symmetry provocation in HC resulted in activation of brain regions implicated in sensorimotor function and cognitive control.
One of the core behavioral features associated with obsessive compulsive symptomatology is the inability to inhibit thoughts and/or behaviors. Neuroimaging studies have indicated abnormalities in frontostriatal and dorsolateral prefrontal – anterior cingulate circuits during inhibitory control in patients with obsessive compulsive disorder compared with controls. In the present study, task performance and brain activation during Stroop color-word and Flanker interference were compared within monozygotic twin pairs discordant for obsessive compulsive symptoms and between groups of pairs scoring very low or very high on obsessive compulsive symptoms, in order to examine the differential impact of non-shared environmental versus genetic risk factors for obsessive compulsive symptomatology on inhibitory control related functional brain activation. Although performance was intact, brain activation during inhibition of distracting information differed between obsessive compulsive symptom high-scoring compared to low-scoring subjects. Regions affected in the discordant group (e.g., temporal and anterior cingulate gyrus) were partly different from those observed to be affected in the concordant groups (e.g., parietal gyrus and thalamus). A robust increase in dorsolateral prefrontal activity during response interference was observed in both the high-scoring twins of the discordant sample and the high-scoring twins of the concordant sample, marking this structure as a possible key region for disturbances in inhibitory control in obsessive compulsive disorder.
Inconsistent findings have been reported on the role of comorbid alcohol
use disorders as risk factors for a persistent course of depressive and
To determine whether the course of depressive and/or anxiety disorders is
conditional on the type (abuse or dependence) or severity of comorbid
alcohol use disorders.
In a large sample of participants with current depression and/or anxiety
(n = 1369) we examined whether the presence and
severity of DSM-IV alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence predicted the
2-year course of depressive and/or anxiety disorders.
The persistence of depressive and/or anxiety disorders at the 2-year
follow-up was significantly higher in those with remitted or current
alcohol dependence (persistence 62% and 67% respectively), but not in
those with remitted or current alcohol abuse (persistence 51% and 46%
respectively), compared with no lifetime alcohol use disorder
(persistence 53%). Severe (meeting six or seven diagnostic criteria) but
not moderate (meeting three to five criteria) current dependence was a
significant predictor as 95% of those in the former group still had a
depressive and/or anxiety disorder at follow-up. This association
remained significant after adjustment for severity of depression and
anxiety, psychosocial factors and treatment factors.
Alcohol dependence, especially severe current dependence, is a risk
factor for an unfavourable course of depressive and/or anxiety disorders,
whereas alcohol abuse is not.