Adults with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a smaller cerebellum, according to a new brain imaging study led by Duke.
The cerebellum, a part of the brain known to help with coordinating movement and balance, can influence emotions and memory, which are impaired by PTSD. What is not yet known is whether a smaller cerebellum predisposes a person to PTSD or if PTSD shrinks the brain region.
„The differences were mostly in the posterior lobe, where many of the more cognitive functions of the cerebellum seem to be located, as well as the vermis, which is associated with many emotional processing functions,“ said Ashley Huggins, Ph.D., the lead author of the report, who was involved in conducting the work as a postdoctoral researcher at Duke in the lab of psychiatrist Raj Morey, MD
Huggins, now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, hopes these findings will encourage others to consider the cerebellum as an important medical target for people with PTSD.
„Knowing which areas are affected can help us focus interventions like brain stimulation on the cerebellum, potentially improving treatment outcomes,“ said Ashley Huggins, Ph.D., lead author of the report.
The results were published on January 10 in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, prompting Huggins and her lab to look for what comes first: a smaller cerebellum that might make people more vulnerable to PTSD, or trauma-induced PTSD that leads to cerebellar shrinkage.
PTSD and the „Little Brain“
PTSD is a mental disorder caused by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, such as a car accident, sexual abuse, or military combat.
While most people who go through a traumatic experience are spared from the disorder, about 6% of adults develop PTSD, often characterized by increased anxiety and re-experiencing the traumatic event.
Researchers have found that several brain regions are involved in PTSD, including the amygdala, responsible for regulating fear, and the hippocampus, a major hub for processing and relaying memories in the brain.
The cerebellum (Latin for „little brain“), however, has received less attention for its role in PTSD.