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Psychophysiology. 2019 Aug 28:e13470. doi: 10.1111/psyp.13470. [Epub ahead of print]

Cardiac reactions to emotional words in adolescents and young adults with PTSD after child abuse.

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Department of Psychology, Bielefeld University, Bielefeld, Germany.
Department of Psychology, Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, Eichstätt, Germany.
Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, Freie Universitaet Berlin, Berlin, Germany.
Department of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, Institute of Psychology, Goethe University Frankfurt, Frankfurt, Germany.


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is associated with alterations in cardiac reactivity to threat cues. Meta-analyses have summarized that adults with PTSD have increased heart rates in response to trauma-related stimuli. However, the opposite effect (i.e., cardiac hyporeactivity) has recently been reported in subgroups of PTSD patients. In children and adolescents with PTSD, reports of cardiac alterations are rare and ambiguous. So far, most studies in adolescents and young adults are restricted to victims of accidents, even though PTSD is highly prevalent in victims of child maltreatment. The present study aimed at investigating cardiac reactions in adolescents and young adults with PTSD after child abuse. Cardiac responses to standardized emotional words were studied in 39 adolescent and young adult PTSD patients after childhood sexual and/or physical abuse as compared to 39 healthy control subjects (age range: 15-20 years). The experimental paradigm consisted of a passive reading task with neutral, positive, physically threatening, and socially threatening (swear) words. Results showed that cardiac reactions to negative stimuli, particularly physically threatening stimuli, were less pronounced in PTSD patients than in controls. Moreover, cardiac reactions in response to socially threatening words were less variable in the PTSD group. No differences between and within groups were present in reaction to neutral or positive stimuli. Findings suggest that a physiologically blunted subtype of PTSD may already manifest during adolescence and young adulthood. Moreover, the results of the present study emphasize the relevance of individual trauma history for physiological reactions.


childhood abuse; electrocardiography; heart rate; passive reading paradigm; posttraumatic stress disorder; psychophysiology; trauma


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