A new study has identified what happens in the brains of veterans with post-traumatic stress as they have trouble refocusing their attention and regulating their emotions – and offers hope for some effective treatments, according to one of study's lead authors.

"There is some hope, because now that we know a little more about what part of the brain is different in its performance after a person develops PTSD, we can target treatment to manipulate that area," said Maya Khanna, one of the lead authors of the study and an associate professor of psychology at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. The study was published Monday in the Cambridge University Press journal Psychological Medicine. 

In the study, veterans diagnosed with PTSD had more difficulty focusing their attention away from cues related to threats, and controlling their emotions, when compared to veterans without PTSD, researchers found. Veterans of both groups had similar characteristics aside from the PTSD diagnosis, such as exposure to combat, length of service, level of education and other demographics. 

Two areas of the brain showed difference when observed in those with and without the diagnosis, Khanna said in and interview: The prefrontal cortex that controls attention, and the medial temporal area, which is often activated by emotional thoughts.  

What does this mean for those with PTSD, their families, and those who may develop PTSD in the future? 

"On the one hand, the basic research is, 'Oh my gosh, there's completely basic different functioning of the brain,' " Khanna said. "But now that we know that, for me at least, we're more hopeful about ways to treat it by targeting those attention- and emotion-processing differences."

Other limited studies have indicated that computer-based treatment can help train the attention areas of the brain to be able to better focus away from the threat, Khanna said.

Participants were asked to identify the ink color of 90 one-syllable words. One third of those words came from a combat-related threat list, intended to be relevant to combat veterans, such as "bomb," "blood" and "war." Another group was generally negative words like "tax" and "witch." A third list was neutral words, such as "self" and "flour." 

The study showed that when people with PTSD are presented with a word that's combat-related, because of the altered patterns of activation within the brain, they aren't able to shift focus from from the threat, Khanna said.

"It’s not something you can just tell people to forget about, or to focus on this and not that," she said – the subjects were not, on a conscious level, able to refocus attention or control emotions on their own.


Researchers using magnetoencephalography to monitor areas of the brain found veterans without PTSD were able to regulate their emotions by directing their attention away from the threat.

The authors note that the study was limited because the number of participants was small – 31 veterans with PTSD and 20 veterans without PTSD. The participants were recruited broadly from the Omaha community, Khanna said.

Khanna said the study results don't mean that those with PTSD have fewer attention resources in their brains, or that that they have developed attention deficit disorder.

"It's more that they have difficulty directing their attention to things that are not related to threat if there's something threatening around them, or that they're exposed to," she said.  

Senior reporter Karen Jowers writes about military families, quality of life and consumer issues. She can be reached at kjowers@militarytimes.com.