BY LAWANDA GOLUB
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, reliving memories of trauma, and avoiding places, events, people or objects that are reminiscent of the traumatic event. PTSD is an event often with an unknown cause, mysterious, and always unpleasant. In American the common cause in is childhood abuse, 16% of American women (out of 40 million) are sexually abused before their 18th birthday. (1) Though, the most common cause of PTSD is childhood abuse it may also be caused by many other psychological traumas- car accidents, military combat, rape and assault.
Symptoms of PTSD include intrusive memories, nightmares, flashbacks, increased vigilance, social impairment, and problems with memory and concentration. While most symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder relate to psychological problems, some or of these problems could have to do with the physical effects of stress on the brain. (2)
Physical changes have been seen in recent studies of combat veterans and child abuse victims. The hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in learning new memory, and also handles stress. (3) The hippocampus works with the medial prefrontal cortex, and area of the brain that regulates our emotional response to fear and stress. PTSD patients often have impairments in either one or both of the regions of the brain. When children have problems with these areas of the brain they can have difficulty learning.
Other symptoms of PTSD in children, include fragmentation of memory, intrusive memories, flashbacks, dissociation (the unconscious separation of some mental processes from others, a mismatch between facial expression and thought or mood), and pathological (“sick”) emotions, may also be related to the impairment of the hippocampus.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder sufferers have a big problem with memory and report issues with declarative memory (remembering facts or list), fragmentation of memory, and dissociative amnesia (gaps in memory lasting from minutes to days that are not caused by forgetting). Many victims report they forget central events but remember minor details of the abuse. During onne incident, a woman, as a child, had been asked to fold fresh towels and put them away on a shelf where a, still living, rat had been captured in a trap and was clawing to be freed. She had isolated memories of folding the towels incorrectly and of the rat. Over time, she connected these details of feelings with fear. She created an obsessive compulsive trait of having to fold the towels trifold and a fight or flight fear of rats. Only when she was able to remember the whole picture of what happened to her was she able to address her fear.
However, recent research has shown that the hippocampus can regenerate nerve cells (neurons) when working properly, and that stress hinders the process by stopping or slowing down the regeneration. A recent study tried to see if PTSD symptoms matched up with a measurable loss of neurons in the hippocampus Vietnam combat veterans with declaratory memory problems caused by PTSD were tested. When measuring the brain with MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) the combat veterans were found the right hippocampal reduced by 8% and no other differences were found in the brain. The study showed that diminished right hippocampal volume in the PTSD patients was associated with short-term memory loss.
This new understanding of how childhood trauma affects memory and the brain has important factory for the public health policy. The different kinds of stress impacting small children around the world from sexual abuse, intercity violent crimes, and war-torn countries with effect how children learn and the disadvantages they may have with the rest of society.
In an ideal world we would take away all the trauma and stress in world. However, the hope of today is with new studies and better understanding of how stress affects the mind and body that we may be able to help more victims.
(1) McCauley J, Kern DE, Koloder K, Dill L, Shroeder AF, DeChant HK, Ryden J, Degrarogatis LR, BASS EG (1997). Clinical Characteristics of women with history child abuse; Unhealed Wounds. JAMA 277: 1362-1368
(2) Brenner JD, Momar C (eds.) (1998) Trauma, Memory and Dissociation, APA Press, Washington DC.
(3)Bremner JD, Narayan M (1998); The effects of stress on memory and the hippocampus thoughout the life cycle: Implications for childhood development and aging. Develop Psychopath pp 871-886
(4)Bremner JD, Southwich SM, Charney DS (1999): The neurolobiology of posttraumatic stress disorders: An intergration of animal and human research. In: Saigh, P, Bremner, J.D. (Eds.): Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Comprehensive Text, Allyn & Bacon, New York, pp 103-143
(5)Gould E, Tanapat P, McEwen BS, Flugge G, Fushs E (1998). Repeated stress causes reversible impairments of spatial memory performance. Brain res: 639:167-170