Neuroimaging the traumatized self: fMRI reveals altered response in cortical midline structures and occipital cortex during visual and verbal self- and other-referential processing in women with PTSD

Eur J Psychotraumatol. 2017 May 16;8(1):1314164. doi: 10.1080/20008198.2017.1314164. eCollection 2017.


Background: Changes to the diagnostic criteria for PTSD in DSM-5 reflect an increased emphasis on negative cognition referring to self and other, including self-blame, and related pervasive negative affective states including for self-conscious emotions such as guilt and shame. Objective: Investigate the neural correlates of valenced self-referential processing (SRP) and other-referential processing (ORP) in persons with PTSD. Method: We compared response to the Visual-Verbal Self-Other Referential Processing Task in an fMRI study of women with (n = 20) versus without (n = 24) PTSD primarily relating to childhood and interpersonal trauma histories using statistical parametric mapping and group independent component analysis. Results: As compared to women without PTSD, women with PTSD endorsed negative words as more descriptive both of themselves and others, whereas positive words were endorsed as less descriptive both of themselves and others. Women with PTSD also reported a greater experience of negative affect and a lesser experience of positive affect during SRP specifically. Significant differences between groups were observed within independent components defined by ventral- and middle-medial prefrontal corte x, mediolateral parietal cortex, and visual cortex, depending on experimental conditions. Conclusions: This study reveals brain-based disturbances during SRP and ORP in women with PTSD related to interpersonal and developmental trauma. Psychological assessment and treatment should address altered sense of self and affective response to others in PTSD.

Keywords: PTSD; Posttraumatic Stress Disorder; Self; fMRI; intrinsic connectivity networks; trauma.

Grant support

This work was supported by the Ontario Mental Health Foundation.