London researchers have learned more about how the brain changes in those with post-traumatic stress disorder, insights they hope will lead to more effective treatment.

A team at Lawson Health Research Institute led by Dr. Ruth Lanius has mapped out changes in connections within the brain that were apparent even when people with post-traumatic stress disorder were asked to close their eyes and let their mind wander, their findings published online by the journal Brain and Behavior.

“These are novel findings that suggest patients with PTSD may be constantly prepared for defensive response, even when they are at rest and under conditions of relative safety,” said Sherain Harricharan, first author of the study.

The brains in people with the disorder change as a defensive measure but in two distinct ways. A majority become hyper-vigilant, a byproduct of a fight-or-flight response, and show that by being unusually agitated or aggressive. But between 15 and 30 per cent adopt an opposite approach — they become so detached, they can feel disconnected from their bodies.

“It’s important to understand that people with PTSD commonly respond to stress in one of two ways,” said Lanius, a Lawson scientist and a psychiatrist at London Health Sciences Centre. “They may become very activated in response to a stressor or they may shut down or freeze.”

Those different outward manifestations of the disorder also show in differing brain patterns, researchers found.

“Taken together, these findings represent an important first step to identifying neural and behavioral targets for new therapies that address both active and passive defensive strategies in patients with a trauma-related disorder,” Harricharan said.

 

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