The body keeps the score: memory and the evolving psychobiology of posttraumatic stress

Harv Rev Psychiatry. 1994 Jan-Feb;1(5):253-65. doi: 10.3109/10673229409017088.


Ever since people's responses to overwhelming experiences have been systematically explored, researchers have noted that a trauma is stored in somatic memory and expressed as changes in the biological stress response. Intense emotions at the time of the trauma initiate the long-term conditional responses to reminders of the event, which are associated both with chronic alterations in the physiological stress response and with the amnesias and hypermnesias characteristic of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Continued physiological hyperarousal and altered stress hormone secretion affect the ongoing evaluation of sensory stimuli as well. Although memory is ordinarily an active and constructive process, in PTSD failure of declarative memory may lead to organization of the trauma on a somatosensory level (as visual images or physical sensations) that is relatively impervious to change. The inability of people with PTSD to integrate traumatic experiences and their tendency, instead, to continuously relieve the past are mirrored physiologically and hormonally in the misinterpretation of innocuous stimuli as potential threats. Animal research suggests that intense emotional memories are processed outside of the hippocampally mediated memory system and are difficult to extinguish. Cortical activity can inhibit the expression of these subcortically based emotional memories. The effectiveness of this inhibition depends, in part, on physiological arousal and neurohormonal activity. These formulations have implications for both the psychotherapy and the pharmacotherapy of PTSD.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala / physiology
  • Arousal / physiology*
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology
  • Humans
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / physiology
  • Psychophysiology*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / physiopathology*


  • Neurotransmitter Agents