Bi-Directional Tuning of Amygdala Sensitivity in Combat Veterans Investigated with fMRI

Bi-Directional Tuning of Amygdala Sensitivity in Combat Veterans Investigated with fMRI. Tom Brashers-Krug and Ricardo Jorge (2015), PLoS ONE


Combat stress can be followed by persistent emotional consequences. It is thought that these emotional consequences are caused in part by increased amygdala reactivity. It is also thought that amygdala hyper-reactivity results from decreased inhibition from portions of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) in which activity is negatively correlated with activity in the amygdala. However, experimental support for these proposals has been inconsistent.


We showed movies of combat and civilian scenes during a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) session to 50 veterans of recent combat. We collected skin conductance responses (SCRs) as measures of emotional arousal. We examined the relation of blood oxygenation-level dependent (BOLD) signal in the amygdala and ACC to symptom measures and to SCRs.


Emotional arousal, as measured with SCR, was greater during the combat movie than during the civilian movie and did not depend on symptom severity. As expected, amygdala signal during the less-arousing movie increased with increasing symptom severity. Surprisingly, during the more-arousing movie amygdala signal decreased with increasing symptom severity. These differences led to the unexpected result that amygdala signal in highly symptomatic subjects was lower during the more-arousing movie than during the less-arousing movie. Also unexpectedly, we found no significant inverse correlation between any portions of the amygdala and ACC. Rather, signal throughout more than 80% of the ACC showed a strong positive correlation with signal throughout more than 90% of the amygdala.


Amygdala reactivity can be tuned bi-directionally, either up or down, in the same person depending on the stimulus and the degree of post-traumatic symptoms. The exclusively positive correlations in BOLD activity between the amygdala and ACC contrast with findings that have been cited as evidence for inhibitory control of the amygdala by the ACC. The conceptualization of post-traumatic changes in neural function should be reconsidered.

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