| One-Minute Clinician

Brain Scans: Can you see the trauma?

Researchers performed MRI's on groups who’ve not been exposed to trauma and compared them to a group who’ve experienced trauma and been diagnosed with PTSD. Calculations determined the volumes of different brain areas. Noted: decreased volumes in the hippocampus and amygdala, which are both part of the limbic areas, providing insights into how the brain itself reacts when exposed to trauma.  

  • The limbic area is involved in emotional response and subconscious reactions
  • The hippocampus is involved in emotional memory
  • The hippocampus directs the hypothalamus, which then directs the pituitary gland which regulates a lot of our physiology including stress hormone release
  • This area gets highly activated during and after stress and trauma and can become chronically activated
  • The amygdala is involved with emotional memory and acts as our threat assessor; it’s always sifting information from the senses and identifying potential and actual threats
  • Functional MRIs reveal areas of activity by “lighting up” and research demonstrates changes in frontal cortex activity based on stress and trauma
  • The frontal cortex is involved in planning conscious decisions and directing their execution; this is why it is called executive function
  • In folks with PTSD, you may see less frontal activity and more limbic activity, meaning less executive function and more subconscious activity, leading to more impulsive/compulsive behavior and less conscious regulation 
  • Often patients are not able to see alternatives to their current state
  • If patients undergo treatment, such as CBT, ACT or EMDR, functional MRIs have demonstrated greater activity in the frontal area and other changes in the brain which show normalized function
  • Therefore, consider urging patients to participate and work with these treatments. It can literally reshape their brain!