The sense of self in the aftermath of trauma: lessons from the default mode network in posttraumatic stress disorder
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Trauma can profoundly affect the sense of self, where both cognitive and somatic disturbances to the sense of self are reported clinically by individuals with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These disturbances are captured eloquently by clinical accounts, such as, 'I do not know myself anymore,' 'I will never be able to experience normal emotions again,' and, 'I feel dead inside.' Self-related thoughts and experiences are represented neurobiologically by a large-scale, cortical network located along the brain's mid-line and referred to as the default mode network (DMN). Recruited predominantly during rest in healthy participants, the DMN is also active during self-referential and autobiographical memory processing - processes which, collectively, are thought to provide the foundation for a stable sense of self that persists across time and may be available for conscious access. In participants with PTSD, however, the DMN shows substantially reduced resting-state functional connectivity as compared to healthy individuals, with greater reductions associated with heightened PTSD symptom severity. Critically, individuals with PTSD describe frequently that their traumatic experiences have become intimately linked to their perceived sense of self, a perception which may be mediated, in part, by alterations in the DMN. Accordingly, identification of alterations in the functional connectivity of the DMN during rest, and during subliminal, trauma-related stimulus conditions, has the potential to offer critical insight into the dynamic interplay between trauma- and self-related processing in PTSD. Here, we discuss DMN-related alterations during these conditions, pointing further towards the clinical significance of these findings in relation to past- and present-centred therapies for the treatment of PTSD.
• Trauma may impact significantly an individual's sense of self.• The default mode network is thought to confer a stable sense of self.• We discuss alterations in connectivity in this network in PTSD and their clinical significance.