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Study: People with PTSD show distinct thought patterns

By Tauren Dyson
Some experts conclude that the people, places and things present during a traumatic event can trigger a PTSD episode later. Photo courtesy of The Marines/Flickr
Some experts conclude that the people, places and things present during a traumatic event can trigger a PTSD episode later. Photo courtesy of The Marines/Flickr

Jan. 29 (UPI) -- Researchers have uncovered distinct thought patterns for people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

A study published in the January issue of Nature Neuroscience this week shows how PTSD patients react to triggers -- and how they can be trained to change their responses.

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"Researchers have thought that the experience of PTSD, in many ways, is an overlearned response to survive a threatening experience," Susan Borja, chief of the National Institutes of Mental Health Dimensional Traumatic Stress Research Program, said in a news release. "This study clarifies that those who have the most severe symptoms may appear behaviorally similar to those with less severe symptoms, but are responding to cues in subtly different, but profound, ways."

PTSD can appear in the form of scary thoughts and memories of a traumatic event, which leads to sleep problems and social separation issues. About half of all adults in the United States experience a traumatic episode at some point, yet most won't develop PTSD, according to the National Institutes of Health.

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Some experts conclude that the people, places and things present during a traumatic event can trigger a subsequent PTSD episode.

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To correct this learning of their PTSD symptoms, military combat veterans completed reversal training where two mildly angry human faces were matched with a mildly aversive stimulus. After completing the first phase, veterans could connect one face to a mildly aversive stimulus. After the second phase, the veterans disconnected the face from the mildly aversive stimulus and began associating a second face with it.

"What these results tell us is that PTSD symptom severity is reflected in how combat veterans respond to negative surprises in the environment -- when predicted outcomes are not as expected -- and the way in which the brain is attuned to these stimuli is different," Daniela Schiller, associate professor of neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and study author, said in a news release. "This gives us a more fine-grained understanding of how learning processes may go awry in the aftermath of combat trauma and provides more specific targets for treatment."

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The research showed that veterans with more PTSD symptoms responded better to reversal training, suggesting the scientists reached a breakthrough in how to better treat the condition.

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