Accumulating evidence suggests traumatic experience can rapidly alter brain activation associated with emotion processing. However, little is known about acute changes in emotion neurocircuits that underlie PTSD symptom development. To examine acute alterations in emotion circuit activation and structure that may be linked to PTSD symptoms, thirty-eight subjects performed a task of appraisal of emotional faces as their brains were functionally and structurally studied with MRI at both two weeks and three months after motor vehicle collision (MVC). As determined by symptoms reported in the PTSD Checklist at three months, sixteen survivors developed probable PTSD, whereas the remaining 22 did not meet criteria for PTSD diagnosis (non-PTSD). The probable PTSD group had greater activation than the non-PTSD group in dorsal and ventral medial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC and vmPFC) while appraising fearful faces within two weeks after MVC and in left insular cortex (IC) three months after MVC. dmPFC activation at two weeks significantly positively correlated with PTSD symptom severity at two weeks (R = 0.462, P = 0.006) and three months (R = 0.418, p = 0.012). Changes over time in dmPFC activation and in PTSD symptom severity were also significantly positively correlated in the probable PTSD group (R = 0.641, P = 0.018). A significant time by group interaction was found for volume changes in left superior frontal gyrus (SFG, F = 6.048, p = 0.019) that partially overlapped dmPFC active region. Between two weeks and three months, left SFG volume decreased in probable PTSD survivors. These findings identify alterations in frontal cortical activity and structure during the early post-trauma period that appear to be associated with development of PTSD symptoms.
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