Objective: Exposure therapy is an effective treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but many patients do not respond. Brain functions governing treatment outcome are not well characterized. The authors examined brain systems relevant to emotional reactivity and regulation, constructs that are thought to be central to PTSD and exposure therapy effects, to identify the functional traits of individuals most likely to benefit from treatment.
Method: Individuals with PTSD underwent functional MRI (fMRI) while completing three tasks assessing emotional reactivity and regulation. Participants were then randomly assigned to immediate prolonged exposure treatment (N=36) or a waiting list condition (N=30). A random subset of the prolonged exposure group (N=17) underwent single-pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) concurrent with fMRI to examine whether predictive activation patterns reflect causal influence within circuits. Linear mixed-effects modeling in line with the intent-to-treat principle was used to examine how baseline brain function moderated the effect of treatment on PTSD symptoms.
Results: At baseline, individuals with larger treatment-related symptom reductions (compared with the waiting list condition) demonstrated 1) greater dorsal prefrontal activation and 2) less left amygdala activation, both during emotion reactivity; 3) better inhibition of the left amygdala induced by single TMS pulses to the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; and 4) greater ventromedial prefrontal/ventral striatal activation during emotional conflict regulation. Reappraisal-related activation was not a significant moderator of the treatment effect.
Conclusions: Capacity to benefit from prolonged exposure in PTSD is gated by the degree to which prefrontal resources are spontaneously engaged when superficially processing threat and adaptively mitigating emotional interference, but not when deliberately reducing negative emotionality.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT01507948.
Keywords: Brain Imaging Techniques; Emotion; Exposure Therapy; Posttraumatic Stress Disorder; Psychotherapy; Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.