In children, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may inhibit the function of a brain region associated with memory, according to a new study published online today in the Journal of Pediatric Psychiatry. In an effort to better understand how trauma may impact brain function in children, researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital recruited 27 children and adolescents, 16 of which had previously been diagnosed with PTSD, and 11 who were in the control group. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers took brain scans of the study subjects while they were asked to complete simple memory tasks. As the trial progressed, they discovered that children with PTSD fared far worse on the memory tasks, and showed correspondingly less activity in the hippocampus, the region of the brain involved with creating, storing and processing memories.
During the study, subjects were asked to look at a list of words and attempt to remember them. Later, they were shown a new list of words, with many of the words from the initial list interspersed. While both groups of children began well, exhibiting similar levels of activity in the hippocampus when shown the initial list, as the task became more complicated, children with histories of trauma struggled to recall the words, and exhibited a reduction in activity in the hippocampus.
What’s more, subjects who in the past had demonstrated the PTSD symptoms that psychologists refer to as avoidance and numbing—which include a sense of isolation, the inability to recall the traumatic event and an overall lack of demonstrable emotion—performed the worst on the memory tasks and showed the lowest levels of activity in the hippocampus.
Early intervention is key to prevent more long-term developmental problems related to PTSD, researchers say, and these findings may help physicians and psychologists develop future treatment regimes. Not only that, but researchers also hope these findings may help parents of children with PTSD to better understand what drives their child’s behavior. A better understanding of the impact of trauma on brain function, they hope, may help them to avoid feeling hurt or taking offense when a child stonewalls, or seems to hold back emotion from the very person trying to help.