Functional MRI Reveals How Trauma Affects Future Psychopathology

“Task-based functional MRI 2 weeks after a motor vehicle collision identified four clusters of individuals based on profiles of neural activity reflecting threat reactivity, reward reactivity, and inhibitory engagement. Three clusters were replicated in an independent sample with a variety of trauma types. The clusters showed different longitudinal patterns of posttrauma symptoms. These findings provide a novel characterization of heterogeneous stress responses shortly after trauma exposure, identifying potential neuroimaging-based biotypes of trauma resilience and psychopathology,” according to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Perhaps the most surprising finding by the team led by Dr. Laura Stevens, Ph. D., of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, was that “[c]ontrary to our initial predictions that heightened threat and blunted reward reactivity may reflect stress vulnerability, a cluster showing heightened reactivity to both threat and reward was associated with the subsequent maintenance of the highest levels of PTSD symptoms.” The team further concluded, “Heightened reward reactivity in the early aftermath of a major stressor may be an underexplored risk mechanism for the development of stress-related disorders.”

In a statement about the research, which it funded, the US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) said, “Establishing reliable, predictive profiles of stress response could improve clinical care, helping providers deliver effective interventions that are tailored to trauma survivors’ individual needs and circumstances,” according to Yee.


Stevens, Jennifer S. and Harnett, Nathaniel G. and Lebois, Lauren A.M. and van Rooij, Sanne J.H. and Ely, Timothy D. and Roeckner, Alyssa and Vincent, Nico and Beaudoin, Francesca L. and An, Xinming and Zeng, Donglin and Neylan, Thomas C. and Clifford, Gari D. and Linnstaedt, Sarah D. and Germine, Laura T. and Rauch, Scott L. and Lewandowski, Christopher and Storrow, Alan B. and Hendry, Phyllis L. and Sheikh, Sophia and Musey, Paul I. and Haran, John P. and Jones, Christopher W. and Punches, Brittany E. and Lyons, Michael S. and Kurz, Michael C. and McGrath, Meghan E. and Pascual, Jose L. and Datner, Elizabeth M. and Chang, Anna M. and Pearson, Claire and Peak, David A. and Domeier, Robert M. and O’Neil, Brian J. and Rathlev, Niels K. and Sanchez, Leon D. and Pietrzak, Robert H. and Joormann, Jutta and Barch, Deanna M. and Pizzagalli, Diego A. and Sheridan, John F. and Luna, Beatriz and Harte, Steven E. and Elliott, James M. and Murty, Vishnu P. and Jovanovic, Tanja and Bruce, Steven E. and House, Stacey L. and Kessler, Ronald C. and Koenen, Karestan C. and McLean, Samuel A. and Ressler, Kerry J.}. Brain-Based Biotypes of Psychiatric Vulnerability in the Acute Aftermath of Trauma. American Journal of Psychiatry. Published online October 14, 2021, at Accessed October 30, 2021.

Yee, Kate. fMRI sheds light on how trauma affects the brain. October 14, 2021, at Accessed October 30, 2021.