Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often associated with attention allocation and emotional regulation difficulties, but the brain dynamics underlying these deficits are unknown. The emotional Stroop task (EST) is an ideal means to monitor these difficulties, because participants are asked to attend to non-emotional aspects of the stimuli. In this study, we used magnetoencephalography (MEG) and the EST to monitor attention allocation and emotional regulation during the processing of emotionally charged stimuli in combat veterans with and without PTSD.
A total of 31 veterans with PTSD and 20 without PTSD performed the EST during MEG. Three categories of stimuli were used, including combat-related, generally threatening and neutral words. MEG data were imaged in the time-frequency domain and the network dynamics were probed for differences in processing threatening and non-threatening words.
Behaviorally, veterans with PTSD were significantly slower in responding to combat-related relative to neutral and generally threatening words. Veterans without PTSD exhibited no significant differences in responding to the three different word types. Neurophysiologically, we found a significant three-way interaction between group, word type and time period across multiple brain regions. Follow-up testing indicated stronger theta-frequency (4–8 Hz) responses in the right ventral prefrontal (0.4–0.8 s) and superior temporal cortices (0.6–0.8 s) of veterans without PTSD compared with those with PTSD during the processing of combat-related words.
Our data indicated that veterans with PTSD exhibited deficits in attention allocation and emotional regulation when processing trauma cues, while those without PTSD were able to regulate emotion by directing attention away from threat.