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Across psychopathologies, trauma-exposed individuals suffer from difficulties in inhibiting emotions and regulating attention. In trauma-exposed individuals without psychopathology, only subtle alterations of neural activity involved in regulating emotions have been reported. It remains unclear how these neural systems react to demanding environments, when acute (non-traumatic but ordinary) stress serves to perturbate the system. Moreover, associations with subthreshold clinical symptoms are poorly understood.
The present fMRI study investigated response inhibition of emotional faces before and after psychosocial stress situations. Specifically, it compared 25 women (mean age 31.5 ± 9.7 years) who had suffered severe early life trauma but who did not have a history of or current psychiatric disorder, with 25 age- and education-matched trauma-naïve women.
Under stress, response inhibition related to fearful faces was reduced in both groups. Compared to controls, trauma-exposed women showed decreased left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) activation under stress when inhibiting responses to fearful faces, while activation of the right anterior insula was slightly increased. Also, groups differed in brain–behaviour correlations. Whereas stress-induced false alarm rates on fearful stimuli negatively correlated with stress-induced IFG signal in controls, in trauma-exposed participants, they positively correlated with stress-induced insula activation.
Neural facilitation of emotion inhibition during stress appears to be altered in trauma-exposed women, even without a history of or current psychopathology. Decreased activation of the IFG in concert with heightened bottom-up salience of fear related cues may increase vulnerability to stress-related diseases.
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