How Trauma Changes the Brain

Summary: Researchers discover changes to the brain’s salience network occur when a person experiences trauma.

Source: University of Rochester

Exposure to trauma can be life-changing—and researchers are learning more about how traumatic events may physically change our brains. But these changes are not happening because of physical injury; rather, the brain appears to rewire itself after these experiences.

Understanding the mechanisms involved in these changes and how the brain learns about an environment and predicts threats and safety is a focus of the ZVR Lab at the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Rochester, which is led by assistant professor Benjamin Suarez-Jimenez, Ph.D.

“We are learning more about how people exposed to trauma learn to distinguish between what is safe and what is not. Their brain is giving us insight into what might be going awry in specific mechanisms that are impacted by trauma exposure, especially when emotion is involved,” said Suarez-Jimenez, who began this work as a post-doctoral fellow in the lab of Yuval Neria, Ph.D., professor at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Their research, recently published in Communications Biology, identified changes in the salience network—a mechanism in the brain used for learning and survival—in people exposed to trauma (with and without psychopathologies, including PTSD, depression, and anxiety).

Using fMRI, the researchers recorded activity in the brains of participants as they looked at different-sized circles—only one size was associated with a small shock (or threat). Along with the changes in the salience network, researchers found another difference—this one within the trauma-exposed resilient group.

They found the brains of people exposed to trauma without psychopathologies were compensating for changes in their brain processes by engaging the executive control network—one of the dominant networks of the brain.

“Knowing what to look for in the brain when someone is exposed to trauma could significantly advance treatments,” said Suarez-Jimenez, a co-first author with Xi Zhu, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Clinical Neurobiology at Columbia, of this paper. “In this case, we know where a change is happening in the brain and how some people can work around that change. It is a marker of resilience.”

Adding the element of emotion

The possibility of threat can change how someone exposed to trauma reacts. Researchers found this to be the case in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as described in a recent study in Depression & Anxiety. Suarez-Jimenez, his fellow co-authors, and senior author Neria found that patients with PTSD can complete the same task as someone without exposure to trauma when no emotion is involved.

However, when emotion invoked by a threat was added to a similar task, those with PTSD had more difficulty distinguishing between the differences.

The team used the same methods as the other experiment—different circle sizes with one size linked to a threat in the form of a shock. Using fMRI, researchers observed that people with PTSD had less signaling between the hippocampus (an area of the brain responsible for emotion and memory) and the salience network (a mechanism used for learning and survival).

This shows a brain
Along with the changes in the salience network, researchers found another difference—this one within the trauma-exposed resilient group.

They also detected less signaling between the amygdala (another area linked to emotion) and the default mode network (an area of the brain that activates when someone is not focused on the outside world). These findings reflect the inability of a person with PTSD to effectively distinguish differences between the circles.

“This tells us that patients with PTSD have issues discriminating only when there is an emotional component. In this case, aversive; we still need to confirm if this is true for other emotions like sadness, disgust, happiness, etc.,” said Suarez-Jimenez. “So, it might be that in the real-world, emotions overload their cognitive ability to discriminate between safety, danger, or reward. It overgeneralizes towards danger.”

“Taken together, findings from both papers, coming out of a … study aiming to uncover neural and behavioral mechanisms of trauma, PTSD and resilience, help to extend our knowledge about the effect of trauma on the brain,” said Neria, lead PI on this study.

“PTSD is driven by remarkable dysfunction in brain areas vital to fear processing and response. My lab at Columbia and the Dr. Suarez-Jimenez lab at Rochester are committed to advance neurobiological research that will serve the purpose of development new and better treatments that can effectively target aberrant fear circuits.”

Suarez-Jimenez will continue exploring the brain mechanisms and the different emotions associated with them by using more real-life situations with the help of virtual reality in his lab. He wants to understand if these mechanisms and changes are specific to a threat and if they expand to context-related processes.

About this trauma and neuroscience research news

Author: Press Office
Source: University of Rochester
Contact: Press Office – University of Rochester
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Sequential fear generalization and network connectivity in trauma exposed humans with and without psychopathology” by Xi Zhu et al. Communications Biology


Sequential fear generalization and network connectivity in trauma exposed humans with and without psychopathology

While impaired fear generalization is known to underlie a wide range of psychopathology, the extent to which exposure to trauma by itself results in deficient fear generalization and its neural abnormalities is yet to be studied. Similarly, the neural function of intact fear generalization in people who endured trauma and did not develop significant psychopathology is yet to be characterized.

Here, we utilize a generalization fMRI task, and a network connectivity approach to clarify putative behavioral and neural markers of trauma and resilience. The generalization task enables longitudinal assessments of threat discrimination learning.

Trauma-exposed participants (TE; N = 62), compared to healthy controls (HC; N = 26), show lower activity reduction in salience network (SN) and right executive control network (RECN) across the two sequential generalization stages, and worse discrimination learning in SN measured by linear deviation scores (LDS).

Comparison of resilient, trauma-exposed healthy control participants (TEHC; N = 31), trauma exposed individuals presenting with psychopathology (TEPG; N = 31), and HC, reveals a resilience signature of network connectivity differences in the RECN during generalization learning measured by LDS.

These findings may indicate a trauma exposure phenotype that has the potential to advance the development of innovative treatments by targeting and engaging specific neural dysfunction among trauma-exposed individuals, across different psychopathologies.

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  1. I cannot imagine what you went through als a child and now as an adult woman.
    Ik work with youg mothers with traumitic pasts, they are now mums themslves and. lots of them have never dealt with there past. It is difficault to be a mom and having your past hunt you.
    I think the study will real help People worldwide.

  2. Yea I’ve been through more than I care to share. Stop being pussies and live your life. It’s over, move on, nobody cares what we’ve been through…. my wife says I have ptsd,I think she just had it to easy growing up.

  3. To the Ph.D’s in the study. Would it be possible for you all to possibly squeeze in how Trauma and traumatic experiences affect the brain of a person with Neurofibromatosis? Who’s also had a severe concussion. It was just one concussion but being hit by a Metro bus swelled my head up into a ‘Conehead’. If I can talk with anyone in this about trauma and the brain that would be wonderful. Contact me.

  4. I am damaged beyond repair.. says my narcissistic controlling mother.. that has dismissed my very young childhood sexual abuse from both sides of my parents family, alcoholic, angry father that abused my mother. She, guns, shootings, fathers suicide attempts, police, constant fear, that I subconsciously must of hid until I was 38 years old married. 2 children later..Pregnant with my 3rd when Daddy was diagnosed with Lung & bone cancer.. He was dieing in front of me the whole time I was pregnant, as my husband got in an accident at work, my husband lost his job, daddy was dieing..we lost pur home.. I was so devastated.. did all I could, was strong, through it all.. Then daddy died.. I was hysterical.. Then my daughter born 2 months later.. I was numb in happiness and grief..
    Drank a little here and there with different frightening dreams of all my childhood sexual abuse arose in different ways, of screaming in my sleep, to triggers of different peoples actions near me.. people would say I had different personalities etc.. I would graciously be a willing participant in your studies to truly help your research and my sanity..

    Thank you

    1. Everyone can be helped. And can become functioning members of society. Therapy. Counseling. Putting the work in, instead of playing the victim, you would be amazed. I am a living and walking result of putting the work in to deal with my past trauma. I did not know how to get out of that rut. Drugs and alcohol were killing me. There is a solution.

  5. Please see my cry for Help I’m 43 years old I am on one last CRY FOR HELP please I been thru alot and I cannot beg enough !!!!!!!!!1982 I was a victim of satanic ritual abuse, The one time event left life long mental scars,the baby sitter beat & chewed on my body and when taken to hospital I had been sodomized. I was 2 & 1/2 years old.This was first trama I suffered and in those days parents were not told to seek counseling for abused child so to date I am left with the untreated imparements this type of abuse creates a vast amount of physical and mental disibilitys that without the right treatment will continue to have a strong hold on my quality of life experience.

    When I was 4 years old my mom shot a man
    Who taught my dad how to grow pot and my parents owed this man $ ,the man showed up to collect his money while my dad was at work we lived on a family members property in a cabin and the man demanded sex from my mom as my parents had no cash to pay the drug debt so the man picked me up and started to take me to his car and told my mom I could be picked up once they payed there drug debt my mom in a panic shot the man in leg with a rifle while I was in his arms another of a long strong of tramatic events in my childhood.

    My parents grew pot to make $ and I was groomed from day 1the day I was born to keep there secret as growing pot was highly illigle and they always said if the police found out they were growing pot that mommy and daddy would be taken forever I remember my parents driving me to chicken cheese when I was 6 for my birthday party and I was stressed whole way to party my dad had been pulled over not long before and the stress of cop smelling the MJ smoke was fresh in my mind so I was stressed my parents were smoking a joint in front the the old Plymouth on way to my b-day party I can vividly remember watching the review mirror and headliner of car as to warn my parents if I saw red and blue lights i didn’t want to miss my party cause of there drug use and I could not see out windows yet as I was too short still so only way I could sketch was watch for the red and blue on headliner luckily we made it but this is one example of the type of trama having this type upbringing subjected me to.

    When I was 13 my parents were in a brutal divorse my dad chased me with shot gun and fired in air for attempting to protect my mom from his abuse ..
    I was consiquently taken by csd and placed in foster care this to was tramatic

    Then once my parents got me back I was introduced to crack cocaine by my mom and I got addicted very fast I was now 15 years old and 6 months later my parents left me in a parking lot and I have been on my own ever since .

    Now I’m 43 and still suffering the echoes these tramitic events still haunt me .

    1. I’m reading your comment, 9:29am, I’m also 31. I’m sending a little loving energy your way with some extra healing cherries on top Heidi. You’ve made it this far, look up. We gotta long way to go from here at least it’s up.

    2. I go to a Catholic church every Sunday and it helps me, we are not alone in our trouble. Jesus is our savior.
      Best wishes for you Heidi .

  6. I believe this study is: important, accurate and needed.
    2 weeks ago I suddenly came awoken by a loud POP. it was 3 am. It scared me because I never heard a sound like it before. I laid in my bed an thought what the heck. Did something explode in my freezer. Then awake I heard POP POP. I jumped out of bed to see if something exploded in my house. I looked out the back yard nothing, I looked out the front yard nothing, I looked everywhere in my house nothing.
    I went back to bed and thought was that a gun? I do not own a gun nor have I ever heard a gunshot except in a movie or a tv show I got back up and looked outside again nothing. I went back to sleep. I woke up again about 2 hours later to the noise of ambulance and sirens.
    My next door neighbor had committed suicide in his driveway.
    I will never get over that sound. I had migraines for two weeks and I continue to wake up at3 am for no reason. My heart is broken for his survivors.
    I can not even begin to imagine how children and adults go on after being close to a school shooting of mass murder Irgun violence or war.
    Honestly they have to be affected in ways no one can predict for the future.
    My brain instinctively knew it was an unrecognized noise for me. I woke up from the first pop and will never be the same

  7. I was in a bad accident when I was 19, I was in a coma for 2 month’s. So I wonder if I have brain damage. Was hit head on by a semi trailer, during a bad storm.

  8. When I was four, my oldest brother, who was 14 killed himself. My family collapsed and within a few short years, my father went off to work one day and never came home. I always knew my brain got injured in some way from these traumas and likened it to what could result from being hit in the head physically. The fallout has lasted a lifetime. I am now 67.

  9. I have multiple traumas, although unaware of many. I have D.I.D. PTSD, depression, anxiety. I have had nightmares and have hit my husband while asleep. One evening after triggering a personality, he or she hit him and my husband hit me back, punched me in the face. I personally was flummoxed. He had never hit me before. I used my pillow and hit him whilec telling him not to hit me. He hut me in the face 5 or 6 times. I saw it coming. I did not move, not once. I finally took over, not co-conscious with a personality, and stopped hitting him with my pillow. He therefore stopped hitting me.
    I pondered why, not once, did I defend myself. He put his arm up to block the pillow, but I never once put it up knowing full well he was about to hit me. I felt like I was warchingbhis hand in slow motion. Why couldn’t I put my arm up or why didn’t I move away?

  10. I had a fractured skull at age 15. The skull was pushed into the brain and pulled out with an operation. It was a few months between the accident and operation. I am now 85 years old and have extremely sharp brain functions. Would be willing to be a subject to study. Doctors say I am amazing and will live another 20 years. First time responding.

  11. I have been exposed to Cluster Bs from birth and am now able to deal with most of them, but suffer from social anxiety as I have a disproportionate number approaching me on sight. If I can be of any help, feel free to contact.

  12. While in the USAF, I was injured in 1988, (CHI). I had to re-learn everything, (walking, talking, personal name, etc.), My left eye had been “moved” resulting in diplopia. My olfactory senses were heightened as to where every scent almost made me sick. However, my auditory senses were significantly diminished where I learned to “read lips” to assist in communication, and understanding. The Veteran’s Administration issued me a set of hearing aids in Oct. 2022. Within 2 weeks, my hearing was completely restored, (without the use of hearing aids). This is the most amazing thing that I’ve ever seen. I’ve been functionally deaf since 1988, and now I can’t stand to hear a truck “back-up.” If this is of interest to you, please contact me. Seeing a Neurologist on 13 Dec. 2022

  13. This is neuroplasticity in action. These neural changes are reversible through psychological interventions. For example rumination about the trauma incident increases the traumatic response and training the mind for non-rumination (e.g. training in mindfulness) reverses these brain changes. See for example the following study:
    Boyd, J. E., Lanius, R. A., & McKinnon, M. C. (2018). Mindfulness-based treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder: a review of the treatment literature and neurobiological evidence. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, 43(1), 7-25.

  14. I am suffering from a severe case of narcissistic abuse, and the trauma that goes with it. I would love to be your guinea pig otherwise I don’t know what I’m going to do to live or how I will ever return to some semblance of normalcy.
    As a matter of fact, I am still being terrorized by my ex-wife for 30 years, through the court systems, due to a local judges fancy for her abilities.
    I assure you, this has to be considered an extreme case of abuse, trauma, abandonment, loss, fear, anxiety, depression, oppression, and definitely stress with physical ramifications. Please help please.

    1. You maybe look into narc abuse and the demonic. You may find some interesting answers if you seek the Truth.
      Not everything is from a physical source, sometimes you have to think and look outside the box.

    1. I’ve dealt with numerous of types of of trauma in varies of degrees. Especially these past 8 yrs with a man I’m truly fell in love with, assuming he’s a severe case of MONPD, beautiful 4 years suddenly with a blink of an eye turned into psychological, thrilling/ chilling mind games, mental emotional torment… and much more..
      The hardest thing is maintaining my sanity I often question myself is it me etc.. till one day thank God for her, saved my sanity, confirming all suspicions I’ve had are actually true and occurring. Since then I’ve tried to regain my voice calling him on kettle on black perse..
      My question for you will I ever be, feel or be me again or has this deepest awful sorrow, depression will haunt me forever? Any hope for him and I can they seek help save them? And myself?
      Sincerely, anonymous

  15. —-Exposure to trauma can be life-changing—and researchers are learning more about how traumatic events may physically change our brains. But these changes are not happening because of physical injury; rather, the brain appears to rewire itself after these experiences.

    Post traumatic stress syndrome (I prefer not to call it disorder) interests me. Whom it affects, whom it does not, and why seems presently up in the air. As an experiencer of that syndrome, it has lasted 50 years, I wonder, why me?

    Harold A Maio

      1. I’m an excellent candidate for your studies; as I have quite a few unique experiences to draw from, which began at birth.
        My cousin and I were raised as twins, even though we were born 19 days apart.
        It was to remain a dirty secret, but ended up leaking out here and there over 14 years, which came with a hatred of me in various levels. Confusion
        of why my “twin’ was my mother’s favorite was obvious even to outsiders. I was sent to Norway at the age of 14 because my “mother” needed a break for a month or two…so I was sent to Norway.

        It took 5 years until I was able to purchase a return ticket back to the US.
        I was almost 20.

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