How PTSD Affects Memory, According To Experts

Experiencing a traumatic event, like a natural disaster or an
accident, can create unexpected ripples through life for years
afterwards. In some people, that trauma can go on to cause
post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a condition that has
symptoms like distressing flashbacks and high levels of anxiety.
Science shows that PTSD
affects the brain and memory
, changing the way it process
information, and that can create a lot of issues when it comes to
retaining new knowledge and recalling it on command.

“Memory disturbances are common in trauma survivors, and
particularly so for survivors with PTSD,” Kristi Samuelson
Ph.D.,
an associate professor in the Department of Psychology
at the University of Colorado and a PTSD researcher, tells Bustle.
When it comes to figuring out why the disorder is so rough on
memory, though, things become complicated. Information doesn’t live
in one part of the brain, and experts don’t agree on exactly how or
why PTSD makes remembering past traumatic experiences so
tricky.

How PTSD Changes Memory


PTSD can affect the brain’s capacity to remember in many ways
,
Samuelson tells Bustle. “First, there are often disturbances to the
trauma memory itself,” she says. “While some people recall memories
with remarkable clarity, others report complete amnesia for
significant aspects of a traumatic event and uncertainty regarding
the sequence of events.” For a lot of people, though, the
recollection is fractured,
with some parts very clear and
others jumbled or missing. “Many trauma survivors
dissociate at the time of trauma,
” Samuelson says. “Core areas
of the brain go into survival mode, making it impossible to encode
what is happening.” Disassociation tends to shut down the area of
the brain responsible for processing experiences from the past,
according to a study published in Current
Psychiatric Reports in 2017
.

This doesn’t just affect a person’s ability to recall specific
traumas, either. “An extensive body of research has documented
mild memory deficits related to PTSD.
Individuals with PTSD
have more difficulty learning, retaining, and recalling new
information,” Samuelson says.

Traumatic
memories aren’t ordinary ones
. “They are encoded and
consolidated differently, in part due to the release of stress
hormones that damage areas of the brain,” Samuelson says.
“Consequently, traumatic memories are highly prone to errors and
changing over time.” Research published in The Journal of
Neuroscience in 2017 suggests that peaking stress
hormones might be responsible for cognitive impairment
in
people with PTSD, including in the parts responsible for recalling
the past, as they stop synapses in the hippocampus growing and
adapting.

People with PTSD
may experience triggers in everyday life
that can make their
brains relive their trauma, even if it was decades ago. Whenever
this happens, the brain can undergo the same damage it did the
first time it encountered the traumatic event. The intensity of
these flashbacks can make people avoid anything that might set them
off — and that, Samuelson explains, can also make those incidents
hard to recall, because the person is avoiding them completely.

PTSD Changes The Brain’s Memory Centers

“PTSD has been linked with changes to brain structures that are
implicated in the processing of strong memories, including the
hippocampus and amygdala,” Sean
Clouston, Ph.D.,
an associate professor of public health at
Stony Brook Medicine, tells Bustle.

Specifically, research has found that PTSD affects the parts of
the brain that process experiences in context, including the
hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. Dr. Israel
Liberzon, M.D.
, head of the Department of Psychiatry at Texas
A&M University and a PTSD researcher, tells Bustle that
according to a study published in Biological Psychiatry in 2018,
people with
PTSD have smaller hippocampus volume
, and that different
centers in their brains don’t communicate efficiently.

Why PTSD Affects Memory

“There are several theories surrounding why PTSD is associated
with memory deficits,” Samuelson says. The first is that people
with PTSD use so much of their energy in looking for threats and
being hyper-attentive that they don’t have enough left over for
thinking about the past. “Essentially, there is a cognitive burden of
PTSD symptoms
that taxes cognitive resources, pulling them away
from memory and attention processes.”

The second theory is that the issues come from PTSD’s damaging
effects on the brain. When somebody with PTSD is triggered,
Samuelson says, the
amygdala becomes over-activated
and releases neurotransmitters
that disrupt other brain areas, like the hippocampus and prefrontal
cortex.

The third theory is that these deficits might not be a
consequence of PTSD at all, but a potential risk. “A number of
research studies have found that poorer cognitive functioning
(including memory) assessed prior to trauma served as a risk
factor for the development of PTSD,
” Samuelson says. “The flip
side of that means that having strong memory abilities (as well as
other cognitive strengths) can play a role in protecting a person
against developing PTSD.”

The reality, Samuelson says, is that all three
are probably true
. “There are preexisting deficits, there is a
toxic effect of PTSD on memory, and finally, PTSD symptoms tax
cognitive resources which in turn hinders a person’s ability to
attend to, store, and recall information.”

PTSD’s effects on memory can be subtle and far-ranging, but

therapy can definitely help
, and may make it easier to confront
the trauma sitting in the brain’s storage areas. Treatment for PTSD
includes
exposure therapy
, which helps people get used to potential
triggers so that they don’t start reliving their trauma, and

cognitive restructuring
, which provides the tools for people to
approach their pasts without guilt or shame.

Experts:

Dr. Sean Clouston M.D.

Professor Israel Liberzon M.D.

Kristin Samuelson Ph.D.

Studies cited:

Bartel, A., Jordan, J., Correll, D., Devane, A., &
Samuelson, K. W. (2020). Somatic burden and perceived cognitive
problems in trauma-exposed adults with posttraumatic stress
symptoms or pain. Journal of clinical psychology, 76(1), 146–160.
https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.22855

Brewin C. R. (2018). Memory and Forgetting. Current psychiatry
reports, 20(10), 87. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-018-0950-7

Krause-Utz, A., Frost, R., Winter, D., & Elzinga, B. M.
(2017). Dissociation and Alterations in Brain Function and
Structure: Implications for Borderline Personality Disorder.
Current psychiatry reports, 19(1), 6.
https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-017-0757-y

Logue, M. W., van Rooij, S., Dennis, E. L., Davis, S. L., Hayes,
J. P., Stevens, J. S., Densmore, M., Haswell, C. C., Ipser, J.,
Koch, S., Korgaonkar, M., Lebois, L., Peverill, M., Baker, J. T.,
Boedhoe, P., Frijling, J. L., Gruber, S. A., Harpaz-Rotem, I.,
Jahanshad, N., Koopowitz, S., … Morey, R. A. (2018). Smaller
Hippocampal Volume in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Multisite
ENIGMA-PGC Study: Subcortical Volumetry Results From Posttraumatic
Stress Disorder Consortia. Biological psychiatry, 83(3), 244–253.
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2017.09.006

Matosin, N., & Cruceanu, C. (2017). Stress-Related Memory
Impairments Are Modulated by the Synergistic Action of Stress
Hormones: Implications for PTSD. The Journal of neuroscience : the
official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 37(16),
4225–4227. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3980-16.2017

Samuelson K. W. (2011). Post-traumatic stress disorder and
declarative memory functioning: a review. Dialogues in clinical
neuroscience, 13(3), 346–351.

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How PTSD Affects Memory, According To Experts