One's Long-Term Mental Health May Now Be Predicted after Trauma

trauma and brain response

One's Long-Term Mental Health May Now Be Predicted after Trauma


When an individual experiences a traumatic event, their brain responds. It could be the shocking death of a loved one, an accident, abuse, or some near-death experience.

Before now, studies have always shown that different people (their brains actually) respond differently to trauma. While one person's symptoms and shakiness may dissipate over time, someone else's may continue for years, even when they experienced the same event at the same time.

But the thing is, these different reactions are rather random. They do not fall neatly into any regular pattern, so it becomes difficult for researchers to determine how a person would fare mentally after experiencing a traumatic event.

The good news is that new research supported by the NIMH shows that a person's brain activity patterns after a traumatic experience may help to predict their long-term mental health.

It's like knowing if someone would be sick tomorrow or not, thus making it easier to address the situation early before it impacts their life to a great extent.


The research

The research is part of the NIMH-funded AURORA study, a large-scale multisite study on over 3,000 people. These people were studied for up to a year after being exposed to a traumatic event.

The research started with Jennifer Stevens, Ph.D., of Emory University of Atlanta investigating the post-trauma activity of 69 AURORA participants who were all exposed to a car crash scene. Stevens and some of her colleagues hypothesized that there must be some biochemical reaction in their brain because, of course, the brain is where all consciousness happens.

So, two weeks after the incident, she went ahead and measured their brain activity with MRI and had them complete some tasks. These tasks assessed their brain activity in response to social threat cues, reward cues, etc. Studies were carried out on these participants for the next six months, and four profiles were drawn based on their brain activities.

The four profiles are:

The same group of researchers also analyzed 77 more AURORA participants exposed to different varieties of traumatic events.

In this other group, the researchers found 3 out of the 4 profiles: Reactive/disinhibited, Low-reward/high-threat, Inhibited. Now, these profiles were not specific to their demographic, health, or trauma-related circumstances.

Stevens and her fellow researchers found that the participants with reactive/disinhibited profiles -- those who showed high activity related to threat and reward -- also showed signs of PTSD and anxiety over the next six months more than the other participants.


The Bottom Line

This research is a major breakthrough in mental health studies. Before now, we only have curative measures for mental health issues like PTSD and anxiety. That's because no one knows who would suffer mental challenges long after a trauma. It's only long after the person’s life has been severely hampered that they draw attention and help can be provided.

But now, experts can analyze people exposed to traumatic events, and those who show the worrisome reactive/disinhibited profile can be offered help long before their lives get into a mess.

However, more research is needed. Using neurobiological, behavioral, and self-report measures, Steven and her colleagues look forward to developing a more comprehensive visualization of these factors that influence trauma survivors' mental health. And they're making their study data available to other researchers to help speed up the development.

This is a ray of light for our future generations. Perhaps, soon, we'll have effective ways to curb these mental health issues long before they have a chance to disrupt lives.

Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Hope Mental Health, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults.  Ms. Woodland with her background in nursing, prefers a holistic and integrative approach to mental health care that addresses the mind and body together. While Ms. Woodland provides medication management services in all her patients, she believes in long-lasting solutions that include a number of psychotherapies, namely cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure and response prevention therapy, attention to lifestyle, evidenced based alternative psychiatric care and spirituality. If you’d like to gain control over your mental health issues, call Hope Mental Health at 208-918-0958, or use the online scheduling tool to set up an initial consultation.

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