Trauma experiences change the brain even in those without PTSD

Jan 30, 2023

Trauma can have long-lasting effects on the brain, even in individuals who do not develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), according to research conducted by scientists from the University of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry. The research team, led by Professor Morten Kringelbach, published their findings in the Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews journal. The study was part of a more extensive program on PTSD in British war veterans, run by the Scars of War Foundation based at The Queen’s College, University of Oxford.

The research team conducted a systematic meta-analysis of all brain research on PTSD. They initially surveyed over 2000 records of published studies that reported brain activity in individuals diagnosed with PTSD. The team then reduced the number of studies using stringent criteria to ensure high-quality data for processing.

The team separated the studies by control group type, trauma-exposed (those who experienced trauma but did not have PTSD) and trauma-naive (those who had not experienced trauma), and compared the individuals with PTSD to both groups. This comparison provided insight into the abnormalities in functional brain activity in PTSD, showing differences between the brain activity of individuals with PTSD and the groups of both trauma-exposed and trauma-naive participants.

This suggests that even without symptoms, trauma can permanently impact brain function. The research found that brain activity in parts of the basal ganglia was different when comparing individuals with PTSD to the trauma-exposed group. The findings suggest that the transition to clinical PTSD could be linked to imbalances in the basal ganglia and to imbalances in a more extensive brain network.

The meta-analysis has identified the need to directly compare trauma-exposed and trauma-naive groups to identify potential biomarkers that could help with early diagnosis and potentially novel treatments for PTSD. Professor Kringelbach stated, “this research suggests that there may be a spectrum of traumatic effect on the brain, where people who have experienced trauma may not meet the threshold for a diagnosis of PTSD but may have similar changes within the brain.”

PTSD often presents with non-specific, confusing, and distressing symptoms, making it difficult for clinicians to differentiate it from other conditions. Among soldiers, PTSD can initially seem very similar to the effects of explosions and blows to the head. Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI) and PTSD are widespread among soldiers and war veterans. The new insights are guiding the research team’s brain imaging study of British war veterans, which will compare veterans with PTSD to veterans both with and without trauma.

The Director of the Scars of War Foundation, Falklands War veteran Hugh McManners, commented that “A possible implication of our research is that because trauma seems to lead to brain changes in everyone who is exposed, PTSD may not be abnormal or a ‘disorder’ but the brain’s natural reaction to events and experiences that are abnormal.” The foundation aims to provide clinicians with the means to make early diagnoses and to develop more effective treatments for PTSD, which could cut costs for war veteran care and remove the stigma suffered by servicemen and women who develop PTSD.

In conclusion, the research conducted by the University of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry provides new insight into the lasting impact of trauma on the brain, even in individuals who do not develop PTSD. The findings suggest that a spectrum of traumatic effects on the brain may exist. Early diagnosis and treatment of PTSD could potentially prevent the progression to intractable chronic versions of this condition. The research is ongoing, and the Scars of War Foundation hopes to further elucidate these findings in their upcoming brain imaging study of British war veterans.