Child, Adolescent and Adult Psychiatry

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Effects of PTSD on the Brain

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can impact numerous parts of the brain, as many of the neural mechanisms responsible for certain functions are affected by the traumatic experiences. Perhaps the most notable impacts of trauma can be seen in the hippocampus, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and the amygdala.

Hippocampus: The hippocampus is responsible for all functions pertaining to memory, such as recording new memories and being able to recall these memories in order to properly respond to environmental stimuli.  It also helps people distinguish the different between past memories and present memories.

However, an individual affected with PTSD will have a hippocampus that is reduced in volume.  This considerable reduction makes PTSD patients unable to distinguish the past and present memories, which is partly responsible for what is known as flashbacks. Patients often relive their traumatic experiences when a trigger is involved, such as a person, place, or object that reminds them of their traumatic experience.

The neural mechanisms that were once responsible for allowing the person to respond appropriately to environmental stimuli now cannot function properly, making the patient terrified of these triggers because the hippocampus cannot minimize these memories.

Ventromedial prefrontal cortex: This region of the brain is responsible for regulating emotional responses, which is useful in situations involving negative emotions. A good example is fear, when faced with a frightening situation, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex allows the person to control their fear and face the situation with more composure and focus.

However, the volume and functional ability of this region severely decreases with a traumatic experience, and patients will not be able to regulate their negative emotions with the same level that they once did. This is why patients exhibit fear, panic, anxiety, and stress as their responses to stimuli that may not even be directly connected to their experience, such as a movie about war for a war veteran.

Amygdala: The amygdala helps process emotions, such as happiness, sadness, and fear. Trauma increases the activity in the amygdala, which has been studied to show extreme hyperactivity for PTSD patients. This is why PTSD patients tend to exhibit high levels of negative emotions when exposed to their triggers. The amygdala will be so hyperactive that patients may sometimes exhibit fear even when they are only shown a photograph of another person exhibiting fear.

Although these changes in the brain will hinder progress in

, it is good to note that the brain has an amazing capability to regenerate.

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