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Smaller hippocampal volume has often been observed in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, there is no consensus whether this is a result of stress/trauma exposure, or constitutes a vulnerability factor for the development of PTSD. Second, it is unclear whether hippocampal volume normalizes with successful treatment of PTSD, or whether a smaller hippocampus is a risk factor for the persistence of PTSD.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and clinical interviews were collected from 47 war veterans with PTSD, 25 healthy war veterans (combat controls) and 25 healthy non-military controls. All veterans were scanned a second time with a 6- to 8-month interval, during which PTSD patients received trauma-focused therapy. Based on post-treatment PTSD symptoms, patients were divided into a PTSD group who was in remission (n = 22) and a group in whom PTSD symptoms persisted (n = 22). MRI data were analysed with Freesurfer.
Smaller left hippocampal volume was observed in PTSD patients compared with both control groups. Hippocampal volume of the combat controls did not differ from healthy controls. Second, pre- and post-treatment analyses of the PTSD patients and combat controls revealed reduced (left) hippocampal volume only in the persistent patients at both time points. Importantly, hippocampal volume did not change with treatment.
Our findings suggest that a smaller (left) hippocampus is not the result of stress/trauma exposure. Furthermore, hippocampal volume does not increase with successful treatment. Instead, we demonstrate for the first time that a smaller (left) hippocampus constitutes a risk factor for the persistence of PTSD.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is thought to be characterized by general heightened amygdala activation. However, this hypothesis is mainly based on specific studies presenting fear or trauma-related stimuli, hence, a thorough investigation of trauma-unrelated emotional processing in PTSD is needed.
In this study, 31 male medication-naive veterans with PTSD, 28 male control veterans (combat controls; CC) and 25 non-military men (healthy controls; HC) were included. Participants underwent functional MRI while trauma-unrelated neutral, negative and positive emotional pictures were presented. In addition to the group analyses, PTSD patients with and without major depressive disorder (MDD) were compared.
All groups showed an increased amygdala response to negative and positive contrasts, but amygdala activation did not differ between groups. However, a heightened dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) response for negative contrasts was observed in PTSD patients compared to HC. The medial superior frontal gyrus was deactivated in the negative contrast in HC, but not in veterans. PTSD+MDD patients showed decreased subgenual ACC (sgACC) activation to all pictures compared to PTSD–MDD.
Our findings do not support the hypothesis that increased amygdala activation in PTSD generalizes to trauma-unrelated emotional processing. Instead, the increased dACC response found in PTSD patients implicates an attentional bias that extends to trauma-unrelated negative stimuli. Only HC showed decreased medial superior frontal gyrus activation. Finally, decreased sgACC activation was related to MDD status within the PTSD group.
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