Apr 03 2008

Hidden outcome of trauma: damage to the hippocampus

Research has shown that experiencing trauma does damage our memory. Abuse of children can significantly impair the development of the hippocampus, which is associated with learning,memory, and the consolidation of memory.

Also, we know that adult survivors of war trauma also experience physical damage to the hippocampus, resulting in impaired recall of memory.

Robert Sapolsky, a noted neuroendocrinoligist, researcher and author wrote a brief article about the impact of stress, especially war related trauma on the hippocampus and resulting memory problems for soldiers and others affected by war and violence.

Sapolsky states,

“Most of the recent PTSD imaging studies have found atrophy only in the hippocampus; the rest of the brain is fine. The damage, however, is not trivial. For example, Tamara Gurvits, Roger Pitman, and their colleagues at the Manchester VA Medical Center and Harvard Medical School have studied combat PTSD patients and reported that one side of the hippocampus was about 25 percent smaller than expected. Twenty-five percent! That’s like reporting that an emotional trauma eliminates one of the four chambers of the heart. These hippocampi are seriously out of whack. Research by J. Douglas Bremner and his colleagues at Yale Medical School supports that notion. Typically, when a person is given a memory task, the metabolic rate of the hippocampus increases, reflecting the energy it takes for that brain region to kick into gear. In people with PTSD, though, the same memory task fails to speed up hippocampal metabolism, a finding that fits with the memory deficits typical of PTSD sufferers.”
Why be concerned about this? I often get into questions about the value of history in therapy.
Should we go back and review what happened to us back then?
In most cases, it is not necessary, nor does it make sense.
However, most experienced therapists will tell you that after sitting with clients for long periods of time, the client will remember some incident from their past, often related to sexual abuse.
It’s like they are sitting across from you one minute talking about something, they stop, their eyes move to the right or left and you can tell they are thinking of something very important.
Their eyes may tear up…they start talking about the memory and are immediately uncomfortable.
Who wants to remember their father looking at them in a sexual way, touching them, or being sexual?
No one. But it happens. And therapy can be a safe place for those memories to surface and be processed, so some coherant narrative can be created integrating this new information.
Imagine thinking one thing about yourself and your parents for many years, then discovering that it was not completely true.
It’s a challenge to integrate that new information and a well functioning hippocampus (and maybe a sensitive therapist) is essential to this process.

One response so far

One Response to “Hidden outcome of trauma: damage to the hippocampus”

  1. Elisa Tashon 28 May 2008 at 4:43 am

    Would like more info about PTSD. Thanks E.T.

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