Variations in response to trauma and hippocampal subfield changes

Neurobiol Stress. 2021 May 25:15:100346. doi: 10.1016/j.ynstr.2021.100346. eCollection 2021 Nov.


Models of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suggest that the hippocampus is key to the persistence of traumatic memory. Yet very little is known about the precise changes that take place in this structure, nor their relation with PTSD symptoms. Previous studies have mostly used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) at low resolutions, making it impossible to identify sensitive anatomical landmarks, or compared groups often unequally matched in terms of traumatic exposure. The present cross-sectional study included 92 individuals who had all been exposed to the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015 (53 of whom subsequently developed PTSD) and 56 individuals who had not been exposed. Hippocampal subfield volumes were estimated using cross-validated automatic segmentation of high-resolution MRI images. Results revealed changes in CA1 and CA2-3/dentate gyrus (DG) volumes in individuals with PTSD, but not in resilient (i.e., exposed but without PTSD) individuals, after controlling for potential nuisance variables such as previous traumatic exposure and substance abuse. In line with current models of hippocampal subfield functions, CA1 changes were linked to the uncontrollable re-experiencing of intrusive memories, while CA2-3/DG changes, potentially exacerbated by comorbid depression, fostered the overgeneralization of fear linked to avoidance and hypervigilance behaviors. Additional analyses revealed that CA1 integrity was linked to optimum functioning of the memory control network in resilient individuals. These findings shed new light on potential pathophysiological mechanisms in the hippocampus subtending the development of PTSD and the failure to recover from trauma.

Keywords: Avoidance; High-resolution MRI; Hippocampus; Intrusive memories; Memory control; Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); Resilience.