The relevance of emotional stimuli to threat and survival confers a privileged role in their processing. In PTSD, the ability of trauma-related information to divert attention is especially pronounced. Information unrelated to the trauma may also be highly distracting when it shares perceptual features with trauma material. Our goal was to study how trauma-related environmental cues modulate working memory networks in PTSD. We examined neural activity in participants performing a visual working memory task while distracted by task-irrelevant trauma and non-trauma material. Recent post-9/11 veterans were divided into a PTSD group (n = 22) and a trauma-exposed control group (n = 20) based on the Davidson trauma scale. Using fMRI, we measured hemodynamic change in response to emotional (trauma-related) and neutral distraction presented during the active maintenance period of a delayed-response working memory task. The goal was to examine differences in functional networks associated with working memory (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and lateral parietal cortex) and emotion processing (amygdala, ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, and fusiform gyrus). The PTSD group showed markedly different neural activity compared to the trauma-exposed control group in response to task-irrelevant visual distractors. Enhanced activity in ventral emotion processing regions was associated with trauma distractors in the PTSD group, whereas activity in brain regions associated with working memory and attention regions was disrupted by distractor stimuli independent of trauma content. Neural evidence for the impact of distraction on working memory is consistent with PTSD symptoms of hypervigilance and general distractibility during goal-directed cognitive processing.
Keywords: PTSD, fMRI, Working memory, Emotion processing, Cognitive control