Diving Deeper into the Symptoms of PTSD

Lydia Wang ’26

Figure 1: Finger lengths and digit ratios may have health implications.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that arises after experiencing a traumatic event. Various cognitive models have highlighted attentional biases (selectively paying attention to certain stimuli while ignoring others) and memory biases (the enhancement or impairment of memory recall) based on negative stimuli in individuals with PTSD. It has also been seen that individuals remember emotional information better than neutral information. To investigate these factors in conjunction, a research team led by Gabriella Imbriano of Stony Brook University sought to better understand the mechanisms of PTSD symptomatology by studying encoding and recall of trauma-unrelated negative words and neutral words in individuals with PTSD. The researchers hypothesized that there would be stronger linkages between memory and encoding for negative emotional information than neutral, observable in longer reading times and more accurate recall. 

For this study, 392 participants who had experienced traumatic events from the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center were recruited. Participants were asked to answer a 20-item questionnaire to measure their PTSD symptoms and a 64-item questionnaire to assess anxiety and depression. The individuals were given a word-reading task in which they read negative phrases unrelated to trauma or neutral words. Their next task was to report the color of another set of negative trauma-unrelated or neutral words. They were then asked to recall these words when given the first two letters or their stems. A control set of unshown words was also used in the recall exercise to establish a baseline recall with no encoding. It was found that mean recall times were significantly slower for negative words (p<0.001), but not for color recall, so more severe PTSD symptoms were associated with slower readings, but not with color naming. In addition, negative words in the word-reading task were recalled with significantly greater accuracy (p<0.001), showing the connection of attentional and memory biases toward generally negative stimuli. 

These results suggest that memory biases towards negative stimuli are a key symptom of PTSD and that negative stimuli receive greater attention. Given that the negative stimuli may have elicited certain emotions, emotions may play a larger role in memory distinction. This study helps contribute to a growing understanding of cognitive processes in PTSD and may provide insight into potential treatments for PTSD. Future studies may investigate a population with more uniform distributions of sex and educational backgrounds to draw stronger conclusions.

Works Cited: 

[1] G. Imbriano, et al., Association of attention and memory biases for negative stimuli with post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. Elsevier 85, 102509 (2022). doi: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2021.102509.

[2] Image retrieved from: https://unsplash.com/photos/VBe9zj-JHBs


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