Date of Award

Summer 8-11-2011

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Psychology

First Advisor

Erin B. Tone

Second Advisor

Tricia King

Third Advisor

Paul Corballis

Fourth Advisor

David Washburn

Fifth Advisor

Tanja Jovanovic

Abstract

Attention biases to trauma-related information contribute to symptom maintenance in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); this phenomenon has been observed through various behavioral studies, although findings from studies using a precise, direct bias task, the dot probe, have been mixed. PTSD neuroimaging studies have indicated atypical function in specific brain regions involved with attention bias; when viewing emotionally-salient cues or engaging in tasks that require attention, individuals with PTSD have demonstrated altered activity in brain regions implicated in cognitive control and attention allocation, including the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) and amygdala. However, remarkably few PTSD neuroimaging studies have employed tasks that both measure attentional strategies being engaged and include emotionally-salient information.

In the current study of attention biases in highly traumatized African-American adults, a version of the dot probe task that includes stimuli that are both salient (threatening facial expressions) and relevant (photographs of African-American faces) was administered to 19 participants with and without PTSD during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). I hypothesized that: 1) individuals with PTSD would show a significantly greater attention bias to threatening faces than traumatized controls; 2) PTSD symptoms would be associated with a significantly greater attentional bias toward threat expressed in African-American, but not Caucasian, faces; 3) PTSD symptoms would be significantly associated with abnormal activity in the mPFC, dlPFC, and amygdala during presentation of threatening faces.

Behavioral data did not provide evidence of attentional biases associated with PTSD. However, increased activation in the dlPFC and regions of the mPFC in response to threat cues was found in individuals with PTSD, relative to traumatized controls without PTSD; this may reflect hyper-engaged cognitive control, attention, and conflict monitoring resources in these individuals. Additionally, viewing threat in same-race, both not other-race, faces was associated with increased activation in the mPFC. These findings have important theoretical and treatment implications, suggesting that PTSD, particularly in those individuals who have experienced chronic or multiple types of trauma, may be characterized less by top-down “deficits” or failures, but by imbalanced neurobiological and cognitive systems that become over-engaged in order to “control” the emotional disruption caused by trauma-related triggers.

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