Introduction: The inability to extinguish a conditioned fear is thought to be at the core of post-traumatic stress disorder. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy has been efficacious for post-traumatic stress disorder, but the brain mechanisms underlying the effect are still unknown. The core effect of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy seems to rely on the simultaneous association of bilateral alternating stimulation and the recall of the traumatic memory. To shed light on how eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy functions, we aimed to highlight the structures activated by bilateral alternating stimulation during fear extinction and its recall.
Methods: We included 38 healthy participants in this study. Participants were examined twice in functional magnetic resonance imaging, over 2 consecutive days. On the first day, they performed two fear conditioning and extinction procedures, one with and one without the bilateral alternating stimulation during the fear extinction learning phase in a counter-balanced order across the participants. On the second day, participants completed the fear extinction recall procedure, in the same order as the previous day. Statistical significance of maps was set at p < 0.05 after correction for family-wise error at the cluster level.
Results: The analysis revealed significant activation with versus without bilateral alternating stimulation at the early extinction in the bilateral auditory areas, the right precuneus, and the left medial frontal gyrus. The same pattern was found in the early recall on the second day. The connectivity analysis found a significant increase in connectivity during bilateral alternating stimulation versus without bilateral alternating stimulation in the early extinction and recall between the two superior temporal gyri, the precuneus, the middle frontal gyrus and a set of structures involved in multisensory integration, executive control, emotional processing, salience and memory.
Conclusion: We show for the first time that in the eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy the bilateral alternating stimulation is not a simple sensory signal and can activate large emotional neural networks.
Keywords: Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing; fear conditioning; medial frontal gyrus; post-traumatic stress disorder; precuneus.