Scientists find heightened attention to surprise in veterans with PTSD

ScienceDaily | 1/9/2018 | Staff
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Scientists at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI) have found that people with PTSD have an increased learning response to surprising events. While most everyone reacts to surprise, people with PTSD tend to pay even more attention to the unexpected.

The study was published this week in eLife, an open-access journal published by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society, and the Wellcome Trust.

Reactions - Stimuli - Environment - Core - Symptom

"Disproportionate reactions to unexpected stimuli in the environment are a core symptom of PTSD," said Pearl Chiu, an associate professor at the VTCRI and the lead author on the study. "These results point to a specific disruption in learning that helps to explain why these reactions occur."

Chiu and her team used functional MRI to scan the brains of 74 veterans, all of whom had experienced trauma while serving at least one combat tour in Afghanistan or Iraq. Some of the study participants were diagnosed with PTSD, while others were not. In the functional MRI, participants played a gambling game, in which they learned to associate certain choices with monetary gains or losses.

Computer - Science - Mathematics - Tools - Brain

"Computer science and mathematics have given us new tools to understand how the brain learns. We used these tools to study whether and how learning might play a role in PTSD," said Chiu, who is also an associate professor of psychology in Virginia Tech's College of Science. "These results suggest that people with PTSD don't necessarily have a disrupted response to unexpected outcomes, rather they pay more attention to these surprises," Chiu said.

The researchers found that people with PTSD had significantly more activity in the parts of their brains associated with how much attention they paid to surprising events when the learning task threw an unexpected curve ball their way.

Fireworks - Person - Fire - Field

"Fireworks unexpectedly going off after a person has exchanged fire in the field can trigger...
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