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Open Access Research

An fMRI study of unconditioned responses in post-traumatic stress disorder

Clas Linnman1*, Thomas A Zeffiro2, Roger K Pitman1 and Mohammed R Milad1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School & Massachusetts General Hospital, 149 13th street, Charlestown, MA, USA

2 Neural Systems Group, Massachusetts General Hospital, 149 13th street, Charlestown, MA, USA

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Biology of Mood & Anxiety Disorders 2011, 1:8  doi:10.1186/2045-5380-1-8

Published: 1 November 2011

Abstract

Background

Both fear and pain processing are altered in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as evidenced by functional neuroimaging studies showing increased amygdala responses to threats, and increased insula, putamen and caudate activity in response to heat pain. Using psychophysiology and functional magnetic resonance imaging, we studied conditioned and unconditioned autonomic and neuronal responses in subjects with PTSD versus trauma-exposed non-PTSD control (TENC) subjects. A design using an electric shock selected by subjects to be 'highly annoying but not painful' as an unconditioned stimulus (US) with partially reinforced cues allowed us to partly disentangle the expectancy- and prediction-error components from sensory components of the unconditioned response.

Results

Whereas responses to the conditioned stimulus (CS) were similar in PTSD and TENC, the former displayed higher putamen, insula, caudate and amygdala responses to the US. Reactivity to the US in the anterior insula correlated with PTSD symptom severity. Functional connectivity analyses using the putamen as a seed region indicated that TENC subjects had increased amygdala-putamen connectivity during US delivery; this connection was disengaged in PTSD.

Conclusions

Our results indicate that although neural processing of fear learning in people with PTSD seems to be comparable with controls, neural responses to unconditioned aversive stimuli in PTSD seem to be increased.