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Neuroimage. 2003 Jul;19(3):587-600.

Sensing the invisible: differential sensitivity of visual cortex and amygdala to traumatic context.

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  • 1Functional Brain Imaging Laboratory, Wohl Institute for Advanced Imaging, Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, Tel Aviv 64239, Israel.


To what extent does emotional traumatic context affect sensory processing in the brain? A striking example of emotional impact on sensation is manifested in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in which a severe emotional trauma produces recurrent and vivid unpleasant sensory recollections. Here we report on an fMRI study exploring the sensory processing of trauma-related pictures in the visual cortex and amygdala in respect to PTSD. The impact of traumatic experience on brain responses was tested in relation to stimuli content and its level of recognition in a parametric factorial design. Twenty combat veterans, 10 with and 10 without PTSD, viewed backward-masked images of combat and noncombat content, presented at below, near, and above recognition thresholds. The response to combat content evoked more activation in the visual cortex in PTSD subjects than in non-PTSD subjects, only when images were presented at below recognition threshold. By contrast, the amygdala demonstrated increased activation in PTSD subjects irrespective of content and recognition threshold of the images. These intriguing findings are compatible with the notion that in PTSD, emotional traumatic experience could modify visual processing already at the preattentive level. On the other hand, lack of content specificity in the amygdala point to a possible predisposed mechanism for pathological processing of traumatic experience. The differential sensitivity of the amygdala and visual cortex to traumatic context implies distinct roles of limbic and sensory regions in the registration and recollection of emotional experience in the brain.

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