Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Individual Differences in Spatial Configuration Learning Predict the Occurrence of Intrusive Memories

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Individual Differences in Spatial Configuration Learning Predict the Occurrence of Intrusive Memories

Article excerpt

Published online: 23 September 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract The dual-representation model of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD; Brewin, Gregory, Lipton, & Burgess, Psychological Review, 117, 210-232 2010) argues that intrusions occur when people fail to construct context-based representations during adverse experiences. The present study tested a specific prediction flowing from this model. In particular, we investigated whether the efficiency of temporal-lobe-based spatial configuration learning would account for individual differences in intrusive experiences and physiological reactivity in the laboratory. Participants (N = 82) completed the contextual cuing paradigm, which assesses spatial configuration learning that is believed to depend on associative encoding in the parahippocampus. They were then shown a trauma film. Afterward, startle responses were quantified during presentation of trauma reminder pictures versus unrelated neutral and emotional pictures. PTSD symptoms were recorded in the week following participation. Better configuration learning performance was associated with fewer perceptual intrusions, r = -.33, p < .01, but was unrelated to physiological responses to trauma reminder images (ps > .46) and had no direct effect on intrusion-related distress and overall PTSD symptoms, rs > -.12, ps > .29. However, configuration learning performance tended to be associated with reduced physiological responses to unrelated negative images, r = -.20, p = .07. Thus, while spatial configuration learning appears to be unrelated to affective responding to trauma reminders, our overall findings support the idea that the context-based memory system helps to reduce intrusions.

Keywords Posttraumatic stress disorder * Intrusions * Spatial contextual cuing task * Startle paradigm

Many people are exposed to potentially traumatic events, such as life-threatening accidents, being held captive, or the death of a close friend, at some point in their life. A possible negative outcome of the fear, horror, or helplessness that may accompany these events is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Trauma victims who develop PTSD suffer from prolonged reactions to the event, including reexperiencing (e.g., intrusions, nightmares), avoidance of cues and situations related to the trauma, emotional numbing, and increased general arousal (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Surprisingly, only a minority of those who have been exposed to potentially traumatic experiences actually do develop PTSD. Indeed, most people are able to adapt well to adverse experiences, a phenomenon called resilience (Bonanno, 2004). Researchers and clinicians alike have been intrigued by the question of what distinguishes people who experience pathological symptoms after adversity from those who are resilient.

Studies of the predictive factors of PTSD strongly suggest that resilience is related to individual differences in biopsychological reactions during and shortly after the traumatic event (e.g., Marmar et al., 2006; for a meta-analysis, see Ozer, Best, Lipsey, & Weiss, 2003). For instance, alterations in physiological and hormonal activity known to influence memory have been shown to be predictive of later PTSD (Delahanty & Nugent, 2006). Accordingly, a prominent theoretical account of PTSD (e.g., de Quervain, Aerni, Schelling, & Roozendaal, 2009; Elzinga & Bremner, 2002) posits that physiological hyperactivity and hormonal deregulation during a traumatic experience lead to dysfunctional activity in memory-encoding structures of the brain-notably, the amygdala and hippocampus-which could lead to the development of PTSD.

The dual-representation model by Brewin and colleagues (Brewin et al. 2010) is a detailed neuroanatomical model of memory formation during traumatic experiences aiming to account for the above-mentioned findings (for competing or complementing models, see, e. …

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