Torture victims found to have permanent mental trauma

University Park, Pa. -- Survivors of organized violence often are left with horrible memories. In a series of studies, conducted at the University of Konstanz, Germany, by the psychotraumatology research group headed by Thomas Elbert in collaboration with Penn State psychologist William Ray, a group of people who had been exposed to different magnitudes of torture described their experiences.

When these survivors of severe human rights violations first spoke about the trauma, their hearts raced, their hands were sweaty, and their breathing was heavy. Those who experienced multiple and extreme trauma, however, soon stopped responding physiologically, and began to feel numb and unreal. Thus, just as the mind has a way of turning off strong emotions in overwhelming situations, the body also can turn off some of its stress response, if feelings of terror and helplessness have been great. The research is published in the latest issue of Psychological Science.

In the present study, the research group examined the functional architecture of the brain in relation to varying degrees of this psychophysiological dissociation. They observed that dissociative experiences are reflected in slow abnormal brainwaves with its generators residing in left ventro-lateral frontal cortex, an area that contributes to the ability for verbalizing and executive functioning, i.e., the ability to plan, prepare and be disposed for actions. In addition, these brain regions mirror and reflect the behaviour of others and oneself (mirror neurons).

Focally generated slow waves as observed in this study often appear around structural or functional brain lesions. Correspondingly, the authors interpret their findings of this left frontal brain activity as a sign of decoupling these brain regions from both sensory experience and action -- the only response that seems possible during serious torture but that has devastating consequences later in life, as this brain reorganisation is maintained even when the torture is over.

This is one of the first papers to experimentally examine dissociative experiences related to torture and the corresponding altered brain states from a neuroscience perspective.

The study authors are Ray, Elbert and Michael Odenwald, Frank Neuner, Maggie Schauer, Martina Ruf, Christian Wienbruch and Brigitte Rockstroh, all at University of Konstanz and Center for Psychiatry, Germany.

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Last Updated March 19, 2009