People with traumatic experience undergo massive changes in the function and structure of their brain, resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Such changes lead to substance abuse, depression, mental and personality disorders, etc. Despite all treatments and care, many people with traumatic memories run a risk of experiencing a relapse, turning their world topsy-turvy.
According to PTSD United, 70 percent American adults have experienced a trauma at least once in their lifetime, with around 20 percent of those victims eventually developing PTSD. The traumatic events like ill health, separation from loved ones, abuse, assault and neglect can lead to long-lasting cognitive and behavioral deficits later in life. It becomes essential to look into the way horrifying memories affect the inner chemicals and functions of the brain. This would prove a blessing in the field of PTSD treatment.
In an effort to find effective solution for PTSD, a team of researchers explored the neurology behind the fear related to distressing memories. They tried to understand the reasons behind the failure of the common PTSD treatment approaches like exposure therapy to address the root causes of the disorder. Based on the principle of “extinction learning,” researchers reported that the treatment succeeds in suppressing the memories, rather than removing them from mind.
Way trauma affects the inner dynamics of brain
When a person experiences trauma, the brain’s fear center known as amygdala rings alarm, and the body responds immediately with hormonal and physiological changes. Any harrowing experience inflicts dramatic changes in the vital regions of the brain, especially amygdala, ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and hippocampus, causing the sufferer to experience the symptoms of stress.
Several brain-imaging studies have highlighted that amygdala, responsible for the normal expression of emotions, witness increased activity due to anxiety, stress and phobias. Similarly, vmPFC, involved in emotional processing and decision-making, and hippocampus, a large region regulating memory, are tremendously affected by the high levels of stress.
As the hippocampus regulates the retrieval and storage of memories, PTSD victims are not able to tell the difference between past and present experiences. Due to this phenomenon, situations resembling trauma can cause fear, panic and aggression. In such situations, victims generally remain hyper vigilant due to the lack of clarity whether the threat has passed or not, thereby remaining stuck in the reactive mode.
Rewiring of brain surges extinguished fears
The generally accepted exposure therapies suppress fearful memories and inhibit the usual response to trauma by connecting infralimbic cortex in the prefrontal cortex with amygdala. The risk of reemergence of conditioned response to persists in such a procedure. Another gap in such a treatment is that the scope of extinction of memories varies as per the context. Since extinction of distressful memories usually takes place in a clinical setting, there is a constant fear of resurgence of such emotions in a real environment. Given the fact that hippocampus is involved in providing a context to memories; medical practitioners can focus on this region during PTSD treatment.
The good news is that the alterations in the brain can be reversed, healing the nervous system to flow between the restorative and reactive modes. The researchers are trying to understand how trauma actually rewires the brain. Even a recent study corroborated that the risk of relapses persist in the present therapies for PTSD. They just help patients to live an anxiety-free life. Training the brain to forget bad experiences does not delete the event from one’s brain, rather interferes with their expression.
Other studies have also raised the point that extinguished fears resurge due to the growth of a new type of bridging neuron connecting hippocampus to the infralimbic cortex. This finding contradicts the earlier assumptions that relapses occurred in PTSD patients due to the weakening of the pathways. One can say traumatic experiences lead to the rewiring of the brain with new pathways.
Overcoming fear to live an anxiety-free life
Revisiting traumatic memories is difficult for many trauma survivors. This new finding will inspire medical practitioners and scientists to develop new treatment methods that could prevent the relapse of extinguished fears in the individuals with PTSD. Moreover, the new development will help the therapists to target the specific nerve pathways and stop the traumatic flashbacks.
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