Rhythms dysregulation: A new perspective for understanding PTSD?

J Physiol Paris. 2016 Nov;110(4 Pt B):453-460. doi: 10.1016/j.jphysparis.2017.01.004. Epub 2017 Feb 1.


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a complex syndrome that may occur after exposure to one or more traumatic events. It associates physiological, emotional, and cognitive changes Brain and hormonal modifications contribute to some impairments in learning, memory, and emotion regulation. Some of these biological dysfunctions may be analyzed in terms of rhythms dysregulation that would be expressed through endocrine rhythmicity, sleep organization, and temporal synchrony in brain activity. In the first part of this article, we report studies on endocrine rhythmicity revealing that some rhythms abnormalities are frequently observed, although not constantly, for both cortisol and sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity. The most typical changes are a flattening of the diurnal secretion of cortisol and the hyperactivation of the SNS. These results may explain why cognitive functioning, in particular consolidation of emotional memories, attention, learning, vigilance and arousal, is altered in patients with PTSD. The second part of this article focuses on sleep disturbances, one of the core features of PTSD. Abnormal REM sleep reported in various studies may have a pathophysiological role in PTSD and may exacerbate some symptoms such as emotional regulation and memory. In addition, sleep disorders, such as paradoxical insomnia, increase the risk of developing PTSD. We also discuss the potential impact of sleep disturbances on cognition. Finally, temporal synchrony of brain activity and functional connectivity, explored using electroencephalography and functional magnetic resonance imaging, are addressed. Several studies reported abnormalities in alpha, beta and gamma frequency bands that may affect both attentional and memory processes. Other studies confirmed abnormalities in connectivity and recent fMRI data suggest that this could limit top-down control and may be associated with flashback intrusive memories. These data illustrate that a better knowledge of the different patterns of biological rhythms contributes to explain the heterogeneity of PTSD and shed new light on the association with some frequent medical disorders.

Keywords: Amygdala; Brain synchrony; Cognition; Cortisol; Epinephrine; PTSD; Salivary amylase; Sleep disorders.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Nerve Net / diagnostic imaging
  • Nerve Net / physiopathology*
  • Sleep Wake Disorders / diagnostic imaging
  • Sleep Wake Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / diagnostic imaging
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / physiopathology*