Paralimbic and medial prefrontal cortical involvement in neuroendocrine responses to traumatic stimuli.
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OBJECTIVE: Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity and cortisol release are consequences of central stress system activation, but they may also influence cognitive and emotional processes within the brain. Despite the importance of central stress response systems, little is known about the specific brain circuits through which psychosocial stimuli activate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and through which cortisol feedback modulates central processing. The authors used [(15)O]H(2)O positron emission tomography (PET) on subjects with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to study these circuits. METHOD: Participants were combat-PTSD patients, combat-exposed healthy comparison subjects, and noncombat-exposed healthy comparison subjects. Participants were scanned using [(15)O]H(2)O PET while they experienced a series of emotional-induction conditions, which included aversive pictures and autobiographic narratives. Blood samples were obtained 2 minutes before and 5 minutes after each activation scan in order to measure the subjects' plasma adrenocorticotropic hormone and cortisol levels. RESULTS: In voxel-wise analyses, the authors found that adrenocorticotropic hormone responses were covaried with regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) in the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, rostral anterior cingulate cortex, and right insula, with some differences between PTSD patients and comparison subjects. Prestimulus cortisol levels covaried with rCBF responses in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex. In combat-PTSD patients only, prestimulus cortisol levels covaried with rCBF in the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex. CONCLUSIONS: These findings provide evidence of cortical involvement in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal responses to psychological stimuli, specifically implicating the insula, dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, and rostral anterior cingulate cortex. These findings also show, for the first time, that cortisol may modulate activity in specific brain areas such as the rostral and subgenual anterior cingulate cortices. Differential patterns of covariation between combat veterans with and without PTSD potentially implicate the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex and subgenual anterior cingulate cortex as areas of dysregulation in PTSD.