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Scientists find heightened attention to surprise in veterans with PTSD

Advancing Diversity Workshop
People with PTSD have an increased learning response to surprising events compared to people without PTSD, according to a new study led by Pearl Chiu, an associate professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. (Credit: Davide Bonazzi).

Neuroscience affiliated faculty Pearl Chiu and Brooks King-Casas, are part of research group that found that people with PTSD have an increased learning response to surprising events. While most everyone reacts to surprise, people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) tend to pay even more attention to the unexpected.

“Disproportionate reactions to unexpected stimuli in the environment are a core symptom of PTSD,” said Pearl Chiu, an associate professor at the VTCRI and the lead author on the study. “These results point to a specific disruption in learning that helps to explain why these reactions occur.”

The researchers found that people with PTSD had significantly more activity in the parts of their brains associated with how much attention they paid to surprising events when the learning task threw an unexpected curve ball their way.

“Fireworks unexpectedly going off after a person has exchanged fire in the field can trigger an over-estimation of danger,” said Brooks King-Casas, an associate professor at the VTCRI who co-led the study. “Particularly for individuals with PTSD, unexpected surprising events— noise or otherwise — could be a matter of life or death. The study shows that while everyone is affected by unexpected events, in PTSD extra attention is given to these surprises.”

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