Goal-Oriented Attention Self-Regulation Training Improves Executive Functioning in Veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Mild Traumatic Brain Injury

J Neurotrauma. 2021 Mar;38(5):582-592. doi: 10.1089/neu.2019.6806. Epub 2020 Nov 18.


Difficulties in executive-control functions are common sequelae of both traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The goal of this study was to assess whether a cognitive rehabilitation training that was applied successfully in civilian and military TBI would be effective for military Veterans with comorbid PTSD and mild TBI (mTBI). In the previous study, Veterans with a history of mild to severe TBI improved significantly after goal-oriented attentional self-regulation (GOALS) training on measures of attention/executive function, functional task performance, and emotional regulation. The objective of this study was to assess effects of GOALS training in Veterans with comorbid PTSD and mTBI. Forty Veterans with a current PTSD diagnosis and history of mTBI (6+ months post) were randomized to either five weeks of GOALS or Brain-Health Education (BHE) training matched in time and intensity. Evaluator-blinded assessments at baseline and post-training included neuropsychological and complex functional task performance, and self-report measures of emotional functioning/regulation. After GOALS but not BHE training, participants significantly improved from baseline on primary outcome measures of: overall complex attention/executive function neuropsychological performance composite (F = 12.35, p = 0.001; Cohen d = 0.48), and overall mood disturbance -POMS emotional regulation self-report (F = 4.29, p = 0.05, Cohen d = 0.41). In addition, GOALS but not BHE participants indicated a significant decrease in PTSD symptoms (PCL-M Total Score) (F = 4.80, p = 0.05, Cohen d = 0.60), and demonstrated improvement on complex functional task performance-GPS Learning and Memory (F = 5.06, p = 0.05, Cohen d = 0.56]. Training in attentional self-regulation applied to participant-defined goals may improve cognitive functioning in Veterans with comorbid PTSD and mTBI. Improving cognitive control functioning may also improve functioning in other domains such as emotional regulation and functional performance, potentially making it particularly relevant for Veterans with a history of mTBI and comorbid psychiatric symptoms.

Keywords: cognitive rehabilitation; post-traumatic stress disorder; traumatic brain injury; veterans.