Can trauma go away?

Lessons from fMRI about how the brain remembers stressful events.


Alex Eben Meyer

Alex Eben Meyer

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Trauma can live in the mind and body for decades, though scientists don’t fully understand how or why. A new Yale study might change that. Ilan Harpaz-Rotem, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at Yale, along with Yale colleagues and researchers at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, have explored how traumatic memories are represented in the brain, and how those stored memories can affect the mind going forward.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is diagnosed after someone has experienced or witnessed a stressful or traumatic event. Its symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, and even physical pain. Though millions worldwide have been diagnosed with PTSD and many more are thought to remain undiagnosed, effective treatment remains limited.  

The researchers enrolled 28 participants in this study—11 women and 17 men—who had been diagnosed with PTSD. They asked participants to recall various memories from their lives, including “calm,” “sad,” and “traumatic” ones. The researchers then scanned participants’ brains using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), while the participants listened to recordings of their own memories.

The study showed that traumatic memories brought distinct, unique brain processes, which differed from sad memories. When participants listened to similar sad memories, brain activity in the hippocampus—a part of the brain involved in learning and memory—was partially similar across all participants. But when the participants heard traumatic experiences, their brain activity was inconsistent, disorganized, and fragmented. (The findings were published in the December 2023 edition of Nature Neuroscience.)

Harpaz-Rotem, who pursued PTSD research after growing up in Israel in a “household with the memory of the Holocaust hovering over at all times,” believes this important discovery may help to determine whether PTSD treatments are effective. “For us, the next step is to see if, after successful treatment, do trauma memories organize in a way that is more similar to sad memories?” He believes this could be central to improving the lives of millions living with PTSD.

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