Effect of direct eye contact in women with PTSD related to interpersonal trauma: Psychophysiological interaction analysis of connectivity of an innate alarm system

Psychiatry Res. 2015 May 30;232(2):162-7. doi: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2015.02.010. Epub 2015 Mar 9.


In healthy individuals, direct eye contact is thought to modulate a cortical route eliciting social cognitive processes via activation of a fast subcortical pathway. This study aimed to examine functional brain connectivity during direct eye contact in women with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to childhood abuse as compared with healthy controls. We conducted psychophysiological interaction (PPI) analyses in Statistical Parametric Mapping-8 (SPM8) using the superior colliculus (SC) and locus coeruleus (LC) as seed regions while 16 healthy subjects and 16 patients with a primary diagnosis of PTSD related to childhood maltreatment viewed a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) paradigm involving direct (D) versus averted (A) gaze (happy, sad, neutral). The PTSD group showed a significantly enhanced connectivity between the SC and the anterior cingulate, and between the LC and the thalamus, caudate, putamen, insula, cingulate gyrus, and amygdala, as compared with healthy individuals. Symptom severity scores on the Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale (CAPS) showed significant positive correlations with superior colliculus connectivity with the perigenual and posterior cingulate, insula, and sublenticular extended amygdala. Functional connectivity data suggest increased recruitment of brain regions involved in emotion processing during direct gaze in PTSD in association with the fast subcortical pathway. The interpretation of eye contact as a signal of threat may require more emotion regulatory capacities in patients with PTSD.

Keywords: Connectivity analyses; Eye gaze; Locus ceruleus; PTSD; Social cognition; Superior colliculus.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Amygdala / metabolism
  • Amygdala / pathology
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain Mapping / methods
  • Cerebral Cortex / metabolism
  • Cerebral Cortex / pathology
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical*
  • Emotions
  • Eye Movements
  • Female
  • Gyrus Cinguli / metabolism
  • Gyrus Cinguli / pathology
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Middle Aged
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / diagnosis
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / metabolism*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology*
  • Thalamus / metabolism
  • Thalamus / pathology
  • Visual Perception*
  • Young Adult