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Intrusive memories of traumatic events are a core feature of post-traumatic stress disorder but little is known about the neurobiological formation of intrusions. The aim of this study was to determine whether the activity of the noradrenergic system during an intrusion-inducing stressor would influence subsequent intrusive memories.
We conducted an experimental, double-blind, placebo-controlled study in 118 healthy women. Participants received a single dose of either 10 mg yohimbine, stimulating noradrenergic activity, or 0.15 mg clonidine, inhibiting noradrenergic activity, or placebo. Subsequently, they watched an established trauma film which induced intrusions. The number of consecutive intrusions resulting from the trauma film, the vividness of the intrusions, and the degree of distress evoked by the intrusions were assessed during the following 4 days. Salivary cortisol and α-amylase were collected before and after the trauma film.
A significant time × treatment interaction for the number of intrusions and the vividness of intrusions indicated a different time course of intrusions depending on treatment. Post-hoc tests revealed a delayed decrease of intrusions and a delayed decrease of intrusion vividness after the trauma film in the yohimbine group compared with the clonidine and placebo groups. Furthermore, after yohimbine administration, a significant increase in salivary cortisol levels was observed during the trauma film.
Our findings indicate that pharmacological activation of the noradrenergic system during an emotionally negative event makes an impact on consecutive intrusive memories and their vividness in healthy women. The noradrenergic system seems to be involved in the formation of intrusive memories.
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