Tag Archives: Prefrontal Cortex

Trauma And Memory

In this article, I want to focus on the potential adverse affects of trauma on memory, and, in particular, four types of memory :

  • episodic memory
  • semantic memory
  • procedural memory
  • emotional memory

I briefly explain the function of these four types of memory below :

EPISODIC MEMORY : Our episodic memory stores our unique memories of specific events.

SEMANTIC MEMORY : Our semantic memory stores concepts, facts, ideas and meanings relating to the world in general / general knowledge.

PROCEDURAL MEMORY : Our procedural memory stores information about how to carry out ‘procedures’ that underlie motor, cognitive and visuospatial skills such as walking, swimming and driving, that have become ‘second nature’ and can be performed automatically.

EMOTIONAL MEMORY : Emotional memory stores information relating to how we felt / the emotions we experienced at the time of a particular event.

 

A SIMPLE EXAMPLE THAT HELPS TO EXPLAIN THESE FOUR TYPES OF MEMORY :

If an individual was involved in a car accident, the four types of memory the person has of the event might be as follows :

EPISODIC MEMORY : The memory of who else was in the car at the time of the crash and what was playing on the radio.

SEMANTIC MEMORY : The memory of what a car is.

PROCEDURAL MEMORY : The memory of how to drive a car (assuming the person has been driving for a long time and is not new to it).

EMOTIONAL MEMORY : The fear felt the next time the person drives the car (the car triggers the fear-response associated with the crash which has been stored in memory).

 

How Can Trauma Adversely Affect These Four Types Of Memory?

EPISODIC MEMORY : Trauma can cause the part of the brain which forms and indexes episodic memories, known as the hippocampus) to ‘go off-line’ temporarily or may impair its normal functioning in such a way that the episodic memory of the traumatic event formed is fragmented, incohesive, and not properly processed. Because of this, fragments of memories that were formed when the traumatic event occurred may intrude on the mind in the form of flashbacks and nightmares after the traumatic event is over for as long as this incomplete processing persists (which, in the absence of therapy and in the most serious cases, may be for a life-time).

SEMANTIC MEMORY : Trauma can prevent information from different brain regions integrating in a meaningful way thus impairing the person’s ability to form semantic memories – this, in turn, can lead to learning difficulties. Semantic memories are generated in a region of the brain known as the anterior temporal lobe.

PROCEDURAL MEMORY : Trauma can adversely affect our memory of how to carry our procedures / activities. Continuing with the ‘car accident’ example, the next time we drive a car our muscles may become tense so that our driving is less smooth than before the accident and we find, too, that we are thinking more than normal about simple procedures like changing gear and using the indicator (whereas, pre-accident’, such procedures would have been undertaken ‘automatically’ / without conscious deliberation. The main regions of the brain involved in the operation of procedural memory are the prefrontal cortex, parietal cortex and cerebellum.

EMOTIONAL MEMORY : The next time we sit behind the wheel after the accident, we may feel flooded with fear. The region of the brain involved in learning and forming  fear memories is known as the amygdala.

 

RELATED POSTS :

TYPES OF DISSOCIATIVE AMNESIA IN COMPLEX PTSD

FIVE TYPES OF AMNESIA LINKED TO CHILDHOOD TRAUMA

CHILDHOOD TRAUMA AND MEMORY – WHY SOME REMEMBER AND OTHERS FORGET.

CAN ‘BURIED MEMORIES’ BE UNCOVERED BY HYPNOSIS?

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Why Complex PTSD Sufferers May Avoid Eye Contact

A study by Lanius  et al. was conducted to cast light upon why many with individuals suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including those suffering from complex-PTSD, often find it excruciatingly uncomfortable every time the rules of social etiquette compel them to make eye to eye contact with another human being (I, myself once attempted to circumvent this problem by deliberately buying a pair of glasses with lenses that were by far the wrong strength for me so that, whilst, to whomever it was I was required, as the law of social norms decrees, to make eye contact, I appeared to be doing so in the conventionally stipulated manner,  in fact, all that my eyes were actually meeting with was a comfortingly, non-threatening blur).

Returning to Lanius’ et al.’s experiment :

The experiment consisted of two groups :

1) Survivors of chronic trauma

2) ‘Normal’ controls

What Did The Experiment Involve?

Participants from both of the above groups were subjected to brain scans whilst a making eye to eye contact with a video character in such a way as to mimic real life face to face  contact.

What Were The Results Of The Experiment?

In the case of the ‘normal’ controls (i.e. those who had NOT suffered significant trauma), the simulated eye to eye contact with the video character caused the are of the brain known as the PREFRONTAL CORTEX to become ACTIVATED.

HOWEVER:

In the case of the chronic trauma survivors, the same simulated eye contact with the video character did NOT cause activation of the PREFRONTAL CORTEX. Instead, the scans revealed that, in response to the simulated eye contact, the part of the chronic trauma survivors’ brains that WAS ACTIVATED was a very primitive part (located deep inside the emotional brain) known as the PERIAQUEDUCTAL GRAY.

INTERPRETATION OF THESE RESULTS :

The prefrontal cortex helps us judge and assess a person when we make eye contact, so we can determine whether their intentions seem good or ill.

However, the periaqueductal gray  region is associated with SELF-PROTECTIVE RESPONSES such as hypervigilance, submission and cowering.

Therefore, we can infer that those with PTSD / complex PTSD may find it hard to make eye contact because their brains have been adversely affected, as a result of their traumatic experiences, in such a way that, when they make eye contact with another person, the ‘appraisal’ stage of the interaction (normally carried out by the prefrontal cortex) is missed out and, instead, their brains, due to activation of the periqueductal region, cause an intensely fearful response.

This constitutes yet another example of how severe and protracted childhood trauma can damage the physical development of the brain.

Link : Lanius et al’s study.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Childhood Trauma May Damage Prefrontal Cortex : How To Help Reverse Such Damage.

how to reverse damage to prefrontal cortex

We have seen from other articles that I have published on this site that severe and chronic psychological and emotional trauma in early life may adversely affect the physical development of various structures in the brain, including the prefrontal cortex. In individuals who have gone on to develop borderline personality disorder (BPD) or complex post traumatic stress disorder (cPTSD) following childhood trauma, such impairment to the brain is thought to be particularly likely.

What Is The Prefrontal Cortex And What Is Its Function?

The prefrontal cortex is a brain region located in the front of the skull (see diagram below) and its main functions include :

  • self-control in the context of social behavior
  • setting and achieving goals

reverse damage to prefrontal cortex

ABOVE : Position of frontal cortex in the brain

Evidence For Damage To The Prefrontal Cortex In Individuals Diagnosed With BPD:

MRI Studies : have shown that individuals with BPD have reduced volume in the brain’s frontal lobe and left orbitofrontal cortex (although further studies are required in order to ascertain if this link is causal).

fMRI Studies : have shown that BPD sufferers experience abnormal activation in the brain’s inferolateral prefrontal cortex in response to stimuli that generate negative emotions as well as unusually elevated levels of activation of the orbitofrontal cortex during the recollection of traumatic memories

Other Brain Imaging Studies : have suggested that BPD sufferers have an abnormally low density of neurons and abnormal neuronal function in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex as well as abnormally low blood flow to the ventrolateral right prefrontal cortex.

(More research needs to be conducted in order to shed further light upon the nature of the link between childhood trauma, BPD and impaired physiological development of the prefrontal cortex. Furthermore, there exists evidence to suggest that severe an chronic childhood trauma can adversely affect the development of other brain regions including the amygdala and the hippocampus).

Potential Adverse Effects Of Damage To The Prefrontal Cortex :

If a person incurs physiological damage to the development of their prefrontal cortex as a result of severe and protracted childhood trauma, it follows that the functions of the prefrontal cortex may be commensurately impaired, including the functions listed above (i.e. complex planning and decision making; self-control in social situations; setting and achieving goals; and impulse control).

Reversing The Damage :

We can employ various methods that mat help to reverse such damage and I list some of the main ones below :

RESOURCES :

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Early Trauma Can ‘Shut Down’ Prefrontal Cortex

prefrontal cortex

THE PREFRONTAL CORTEX :

First, I will describe the main functions of the brain’s prefrontal cortex ; they are as follows :

  • modulates feelings of fear associated with threat (eg calms us down if a raised alarm turns out to be a false alarm)
  • controls the intensity of our emotions (so we are neither inappropriately under-emotionally aroused nor inappropriately over-emotionally aroused)
  • helps us to plan and control impulsive, ‘knee-jerk’ reactions
  • helps us to become mentally attuned to others and to empathize with them
  • provides us with a moral awareness and ethical framework
  • provides us with insight into the workings of our own minds
  • helps us behave rationally
  • helps us to think logically
  • helps us maintain a healthy balance between hyperarousal (too much arousal) and hypoarousal (too little arousal).

How Early Trauma Adversely Affects The Development Of The Prefrontal Cortex :

Even in emotionally and mentally ‘healthy’ individuals, the prefrontal cortex does not become fully developed until the age of about 25 years; this is a major reason why the behaviour of someone aged, say, eighteen, is often more erratic and ill-considered than that of a person aged, for example, twenty-six years. (It follows from this that a strong argument can be put forward that courts of law should take into account the underdevelopment of the prefrontal cortex in younger adults when considering sentences for this age group.)

Also, crucially, the development of the prefrontal cortex is particularly sensitive to the emotional and psychological environment in which we grow up.

Indeed, if one has suffered severe trauma when growing up, the prefrontal cortex (specifically, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex)  may not physically develop to its usual size  and, therefore, in adulthood, be of a smaller volume than average.

This can inhibit the functions listed above to varying degrees (depending upon the degree to which the development of the brain region has been damaged). In particular, the individual affected in this way may develop hypersensitivity to stressful stimuli, an inability to calm him/herself down when experiencing stress (sometimes described by psychologists as an inability to self-regulate emotions) and abnormally high levels of fear and anxiety.

Extreme fear responses and high levels of anxiety are particularly likely to occur when an individual who has incurred damage to the prefrontal cortex due to childhood trauma experiences a stressful event or situation which triggers memories (on either a conscious or unconscious level) of the childhood trauma.

 

HOPE OFFERED BY NEUROPLASTICITY :

However, there is hope for people who have been affected in this way due to a quality of the brain known as ‘neuroplasticity which allows the brain to repair itself. You can read about this in my article  Mending The Mind With Self-Directed Neuroplasticity.

You may also wish to read : How CBT Can Help Repait The Cortex

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

3 Types Of Emotional Control Difficulties Resulting From Childhood Trauma

We know that those who suffer significant childhood trauma are more likely to suffer from emotional dysregulation (i.e. problems controlling their emotions) in adulthood compared to those who had a relatively stable upbringing. This is especially true, of course, if they develop borderline personality disorder (BPD) as a result of their childhood experiences (BPD is strongly associated with childhood trauma and one of its main symptoms is emotional dysregulation).

AMYGDALA, HIPPOCAMPUS AND PREFRONTAL CORTEX :

It is theorized (and there is much evidence building up which supports the theory) that one main reason childhood trauma causes the person who suffered it to develop problems controlling his/her emotions in later life is that the experience of significant childhood trauma can lead to damage of the brain structure called the amygdala which is responsible for our emotional reactions to events. (It is also thought that the experience of childhood trauma can also damage other areas of the brain that affect our emotional responses, such as the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex

The three types of emotional control difficulties that an individual who has suffered significant childhood trauma may develop are:

1) Severe emotional over-reactions.

2) A propensity to experience sudden shifts in one’s emotional state (also known as emotional lability).

3) Once triggered, emotions take a long time to return to their normal levels.

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

1) Severe emotional over- reactions:

We may react emotionally disproportionately to the things that happen to us. For example, disproportionately angry as a result of what would objectively appear to be very minor provocation, disproportionately anxious in response to a very minor threat or even suicidal behavior/ self-harming behavior in response to events that the ‘average’ person could take in their stride with little difficulty.

To take a personal example : when I was a teenager I had a minor argument with a friend. As a result, he demanded that I leave his house. Before I knew it, I had punched him. It was only years later (because I’m stupid) that it occurred that I’d reacted as I did because the incident reminded me, on an unconscious level, of my mother throwing me out of the house some years earlier (when I was thirteen years old); in so doing, it had triggered intensely painful feelings associated with the memory of this ultimate rejection.

2) A propensity to experience sudden shifts in one’s emotional state:

For example, one minute the individual may be withdrawn, depressed and reticent but then suddenly swing, with little or no provocation, into a highly agitated, angry and voluble state.

3) Once triggered, emotions take a long time to return to their normal levels:

It is thought that this is due to problems of communication between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala (in healthy individuals the prefrontal cortex acts efficiently to send messages to the amygdala to reduce its activity once the cause of the emotions is over – the amygdala being a part of the brain which gives rise to emotional responses).

Indeed, it is thought all three of the above problems occur due to brain dysfunction caused, at least in part, by early life trauma.

childhood-trauma-brain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Childhood Trauma Recovery