Perceived threat predicts the neural sequelae of combat stress.

Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands.
Molecular Psychiatry (Impact Factor: 15.15). 01/2011; 16(6):664-71. DOI: 10.1038/mp.2010.132
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT Exposure to severe stressors increases the risk for psychiatric disorders in vulnerable individuals, but can lead to positive outcomes for others. However, it remains unknown how severe stress affects neural functioning in humans and what factors mediate individual differences in the neural sequelae of stress. The amygdala is a key brain region involved in threat detection and fear regulation, and previous animal studies have suggested that stress sensitizes amygdala responsivity and reduces its regulation by the prefrontal cortex. In this study, we used a prospective design to investigate the consequences of severe stress in soldiers before and after deployment to a combat zone. We found that combat stress increased amygdala and insula reactivity to biologically salient stimuli across the group of combat-exposed individuals. In contrast, its influence on amygdala coupling with the insula and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex was dependent on perceived threat, rather than actual exposure, suggesting that threat appraisal affects interoceptive awareness and amygdala regulation. Our results demonstrate that combat stress has sustained consequences on neural responsivity, and suggest a key role for the appraisal of threat on an amygdala-centered neural network in the aftermath of severe stress.

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