Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is associated with fear response system dysregulation. Research has shown that the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) may modulate the fear response and that individuals with PTSD have abnormalities in ACC structure and functioning. Our objective was to assess whether ACC volume moderates the relationship between PTSD and fear-potentiated psychophysiological response in a sample of Gulf War Veterans. 142 Veteran participants who were associated with a larger study associated with Gulf War Illness were exposed to no threat, ambiguous threat, and high threat conditions in a fear conditioned startle response paradigm and also provided MRI imaging data. PTSD was assessed using the Clinician Administered PTSD Scale (CAPS). Decreased caudal ACC volume predicted greater psychophysiological responses with a slower habituation of psychophysiological magnitudes across trials (p < 0.001). PTSD diagnosis interacted significantly with both caudal and rostral ACC volumes on psychophysiological response magnitudes, where participants with PTSD and smaller rostral and caudal ACC volumes had greater psychophysiological magnitudes across trials (p < 0.05 and p < 0.001, respectively) and threat conditions (p < 0.05 and p < 0.005). Our results suggest that ACC volume may moderate both threat sensitivity and threat response via impaired habituation in individuals who have been exposed to traumatic events. More research is needed to assess whether ACC size and these associated response patterns are due to neurological processes resulting from trauma exposure or if they are indicative of a premorbid risk for PTSD subsequent to trauma exposure.
Keywords: Biological markers; Habituation; Neuroimaging; PTSD/Posttraumatic Stress Disorder; Startle; Trauma.
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