Brainstem and midbrain neuronal circuits that control innate, reflexive responses and arousal are increasingly recognized as central to the neurobiological framework of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The reticular activation system represents a fundamental neuronal circuit that plays a critical role not only in generating arousal but also in coordinating innate, reflexive responding. Accordingly, the present investigation aims to characterize the resting state functional connectivity of the reticular activation system in PTSD and its dissociative subtype.
We investigated patterns of resting state functional connectivity of a central node of the reticular activation system, namely, the pedunculopontine nuclei, among individuals with PTSD (n = 77), its dissociative subtype (PTSD+DS; n = 48), and healthy controls (n = 51).
Participants with PTSD and PTSD+DS were characterized by within-group pedunculopontine nuclei resting state functional connectivity to brain regions involved in innate threat processing and arousal modulation (i.e., midbrain, amygdala, ventromedial prefrontal cortex). Critically, this pattern was most pronounced in individuals with PTSD+DS, as compared to both control and PTSD groups. As compared to participants with PTSD and controls, individuals with PTSD+DS showed enhanced pedunculopontine nuclei resting state functional connectivity to the amygdala and the parahippocampal gyrus as well as to the anterior cingulate and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. No group differences emerged between PTSD and control groups. In individuals with PTSD+DS, state derealization/depersonalization was associated with reduced resting state functional connectivity between the left pedunculopontine nuclei and the anterior nucleus of the thalamus. Altered connectivity in these regions may restrict the thalamo-cortical transmission necessary to integrate internal and external signals at a cortical level and underlie, in part, experiences of depersonalization and derealization.
The present findings extend the current neurobiological model of PTSD and provide emerging evidence for the need to incorporate brainstem structures, including the reticular activation system, into current conceptualizations of PTSD and its dissociative subtype.