Functional MRI shows brain changes after a single harrowing experience

First they thought they were about to die in a plane that had lost all power over the Atlantic Ocean. Then they survived an emergency landing on a chancy island airfield. Now some of the nearly 300 passengers of Air Transat Flight 236 are helping to show how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) permanently alters the way the brain processes new information as well as memories—good, bad and neutral.

Using functional MRI, lead researcher Daniela Palombo, PhD, of Boston University School of Medicine, and colleagues showed how the amygdala, hippocampus and midline frontal and posterior regions “light up” when the subject watches a video re-creation of the 2001 incident. Their report on the work ran in Clinical Psychological Science and drew coverage in Newsweek.

The magazine told how one of the PTSD-stricken passengers was a psychiatry and neuroscience professor who went on to suggest studying herself and other survivors. Margaret McKinnon, PhD, of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, said the work was “an opportunity to turn something negative into a positive experience and hopefully make a contribution to the science of PTSD.”

The new fMRI study was preceded several years ago by a memory test that gauged the quality of 15 passengers’ memories of the flight. This produced two key findings: All had detailed recollections of the event, and those with PTSD symptoms tended to lose focus when asked about the near-death experience.

In the fMRI study, eight returning subjects were shown a Discovery Channel video recreation that included you-are-there scenes scanning the island and airfield from the sky. “I can tell you, I re-experienced the event. It was that evocative of the experience,” McKinnon told Newsweek. “They say in trauma the body keeps the score,” she added, and Palombo’s team had the imaging to show it.

After this part of the new study, the passengers verbally recalled their experiences of the 9/11 attacks, aided by video, along with a benign personal memory. The fMRI showed the PTSD patients experiencing similarly “colorful” brain activity over the 9/11 memory but not over the harmless autobiographical event. A control group of people who had not been through a near-death experience did not evidence the brain light-ups when immersed in 9/11 memories.

“These findings add fuel to the theory that, when it comes to PTSD, it’s not so much that a traumatic memory exists but that it can be later triggered in unpredictable ways and at unexpected times,” Newsweek reported. “McKinnon’s hope is that an enriched knowledge of brain activity following a traumatic experience could help advance current therapies built around processing these uncontrolled memories.”

Read the magazine article here and the journal report here