Intrinsic sensory disinhibition contributes to intrusive re-experiencing in combat veterans

Sci Rep. 2020 Jan 22;10(1):936. doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-57963-2.


Intrusive re-experiencing of traumatic events is a hallmark symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder, characterized by rich and vivid sensory details as reported in "flashbacks". While prevailing models of trauma intrusions focus on dysregulated emotional processes, we hypothesize that a deficiency in intrinsic sensory inhibition could drive overactivation of sensory representations of trauma memories, precipitating sensory-rich intrusions. In a sample of combat veterans, we examined resting-state alpha (8-12 Hz) oscillatory activity (in both power and posterior→frontal connectivity), given its role in sensory cortical inhibition, in association with intrusive re-experiencing symptoms. Veterans further participated in an odor task (including both combat and non-combat odors) to assess olfactory trauma memory and emotional response. We observed an association between intrusive re-experiencing symptoms and attenuated resting-state posterior→frontal alpha connectivity, which were both correlated with olfactory trauma memory. Importantly, olfactory trauma memory was identified as a mediator of the relationship between alpha connectivity and intrusive re-experiencing, suggesting that deficits in intrinsic sensory inhibition contributed to intrusive re-experiencing of trauma via heightened trauma memory. Therefore, by permitting unfiltered sensory cues to enter information processing and activate sensory representations of trauma, sensory disinhibition can constitute a sensory mechanism of intrusive re-experiencing in trauma-exposed individuals.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cognition
  • Cues*
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological*
  • Male
  • Memory*
  • Middle Aged
  • Sensation*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology*
  • Veterans / psychology*