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Previous research has shown relatively diminished medial prefrontal cortex activation and heightened psychophysiological responses during the recollection of personal events in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but the origin of these abnormalities is unknown. Twin studies provide the opportunity to determine whether such abnormalities reflect familial vulnerabilities, result from trauma exposure, or are acquired characteristics of PTSD.
In this case–control twin study, 26 male identical twin pairs (12 PTSD; 14 non-PTSD) discordant for PTSD and combat exposure recalled and imagined trauma-unrelated stressful and neutral life events using a standard script-driven imagery paradigm during functional magnetic resonance imaging and concurrent skin conductance measurement.
Diminished activation in the medial prefrontal cortex during Stressful v. Neutral script-driven imagery was observed in the individuals with PTSD, relative to other groups.
Diminished medial prefrontal cortex activation during Stressful v. Neutral script-driven imagery may be an acquired characteristic of PTSD. If replicated, this finding could be used prospectively to inform diagnosis and the assessment of treatment response.
Neuroimaging research has demonstrated medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) hyporesponsivity and amygdala hyperresponsivity to trauma-related or emotional stimuli in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Relatively few studies have examined brain responses to the recollection of stressful, but trauma-unrelated, personal events in PTSD. In the current study, we sought to determine whether regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) abnormalities in mPFC and amygdala in PTSD could be observed during the recollection of trauma-unrelated stressful personal events.
Participants were 35 right-handed male combat veterans (MCVs) and female nurse veterans (FNVs) who served in Vietnam: 17 (seven male, 10 female) with current military-related PTSD and 18 (nine male, nine female) with no current or lifetime PTSD. We used positron emission tomography (PET) and script-driven imagery to study rCBF during the recollection of trauma-unrelated stressful versus neutral and traumatic events.
Voxelwise tests revealed significant between-group differences for the trauma-unrelated stressful versus neutral comparison in mPFC, specifically in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Functional region of interest (ROI) analyses demonstrated that this interaction in mPFC represented greater rCBF decreases in the PTSD group during trauma-unrelated stressful imagery relative to neutral imagery compared to the non-PTSD group. No differential amygdala activation was observed between groups or in either group separately.
Veterans with PTSD, compared to those without PTSD, exhibited decreased rCBF in mPFC during mental imagery of trauma-unrelated stressful personal experiences. Functional neuroanatomical models of PTSD must account for diminished mPFC responses that extend to emotional stimuli, including stressful personal experiences that are not directly related to PTSD.
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