Been traumatized? Here's how PTSD rewires the brain.
Learn what PTSD does to the brain, and how someone can bounce back.
We tend to float about our lives, worrying about little inconveniences. But if the space inside your head is generally a peaceful one, count yourself lucky indeed. If instead, you are wrestling in the aftermath of some terrible trauma, it might seem like you're the only one, but you are far from alone. According to the nonprofit PTSD United, Inc., 70 percent of U.S. adults have experienced a significant trauma at least once in their lifetime . That equates to 223.4 million people. 20 percent of those victims develop PTSD.
When we picture the disorder, we often see a returned soldier, usually male, wrestling with emotional scars from the battlefield. In reality, one out of every nine suffers is female. Women are twice as likely to experience PTSD as men. Child abuse, sexual assault, rape, a physical attack, and being a part of or witnessing violence and bloodshed causes this trauma disorder. Now researchers are determining how being traumatized alters the brain itself, in hopes of understanding PTSD better, and hopefully finding novel ways to treat it.
When a trauma occurs, the reptilian brain takes over. This is the brain stem or the earliest developed part. It kicks in the “fight or flight" response. All nonessential body and mind functions shut down. When the threat ceases, the parasympathetic nervous system down-shifts and resumes those higher functions. For 20 percent of survivors, after effects remain, what we know as PTSD. The organ being plastic, trauma fundamentally changes how it operates. Victims may have vivid nightmares and flashbacks, cannot abide change, and have difficulty expressing themselves. They will also avoid those things that remind them of their trauma.
Several in-depth studies, using neuroimaging technology to map the brains of PTSD sufferers, have been conducted. These have outlined dramatic changes in brain structures and functions. The three most impacted places are the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). These complete the stress circuit inside the brain, and are responsible for the symptoms a sufferer continues to experience.
The most impacted region is the hippocampus, responsible for memory. This area regulates the storage and retrieval of memories, as well as differentiating between past and present experiences. Since the nervous system is stuck in high gear, stress hormones remain elevated. This damages glucocorticoid cells in the hippocampus, making it difficult to form synaptic connections, and thus sustain or recall memories. As a result, those with PTSD lose precious volume to the hippocampus. This causes an inability for the victim to tell the difference between past and present experiences. Due to this phenomenon, environments that even resemble where the trauma took place can cause panic, fear, and aggression. The victim cannot tell the difference between the past memory and the present situation. Since it is unknown to them whether the threat has passed, the victim remains hypervigilant. They are stuck in reactive mode.
Substantial loss of volume also takes place in the vmPFC. This area controls our response to emotions. With a limited vmPFC, victims find it harder to contain themselves or control behavior. Adding to this, the emotional center or amygdala increases in size. An overactive amygdala is responsible for the symptoms we generally think of when we consider PTSD including traumatic memories, negative mood alterations, an extreme startle response, and avoidance of anything that can conjure up trauma. These symptoms are confusing to victims who find themselves suddenly without control of their minds and bodies. They can't understand why they are thrown into a rage or nearly brought to tears over the silliest thing. Sufferers may experience heart palpitations, memory loss, shaking, insomnia, nightmares, and difficulty concentrating. Also, hypervigilance causes elevated levels of stress hormones, making it difficult for the body to regulate itself.
The good news is, this condition is reversible. The amygdala can calm down, the hippocampus to start regulating memories again, and the parasympathetic nervous system revert from reactive to restorative mode. Treatment includes certain medications and behavioral therapies which have been proven to increase hippocampus volume in PTSD sufferers. Besides these, there is neuro-linguistic programming, hypnosis, and other alternative therapies to reprogram the mind. Other helpful therapies include trauma releasing exercises, and body-mind techniques which can harken the person back to where they were before the trauma occurred, and help them to reconnect with themselves. Therapists agree that each PTSD management plan must be tailored to meet the individual's specific needs. Over time, the mind can be rewired and the person's life restored. Though easily damaged, the brain is also malleable and can bounce back.
To learn if different traumas cause different forms of PTSD click here:
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Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.
- The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
- Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
- These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.
Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.
A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.
Rethinking humanity's origin story
The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.
David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.
The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.
Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"
He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.
"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."
Migrating out of Africa
In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.
Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.
The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.
The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.
Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.
Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.
Did we head east or south of Eden?
Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.
Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.
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