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Do psychological traumas change our brain?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a clinical condition that may affect victims of psychological trauma. But how is our brain modified after a strong shock? And is it possible to modify it back? At ISTC a promising study started to answer these questions. 

Neuroimaging techniques have recently been widely used to evaluate psychotherapy effects. Functional studies like positron emission tomography (PET) can reliably detect changes in cerebral blood flow, suggesting a specific role for each brain area involved in the various components of emotional processing.

At ISTC, in collaboration with researchers from "Tor Vergata" University, EMDR Italy Association and "La Sapienza" University, these techniques have been applied to study Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Results revealed the benefits of a treatment called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR), which was able to have good effects on brain functions. In other words, after EMDR the patient felt better, and this corresponded to a neural change in his brain.

This finding has a potential huge impact on post-trauma treatment. PTSD is a stress disorder affecting some victims of psychological trauma such as accidents or abuses. PSTD causes memory and mood dysfunctions, learning difficulties, conditioned fear due to involuntary recalled flashbacks of the traumatic event. This leads to the sensitization of the brain networks involved in fear response, in particular a deficit in the inhibition of amygdala, which is constantly activated by prefrontal cortex because of the persistent threat sensation.

EMDR is a specific form of psychotherapy for trauma-related disorders that works on the reduction of distressing memories to lower their lingering influence. ISTC study monitored for the first time the neurophysiology changes occurring during EMDR psychotherapy, revealing that after several therapy sessions the prevalent electrical brain activity moved from prefrontal cortex to temporal, parietal and occipital regions. This result suggests a cognitive processing of the traumatic event: a promising finding both for the therapy and for the neuroimaging techniques to monitor it. 

Contact: Marco Pagani