BACKGROUND: Intrusive re-experiencing in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) comprises distressing sensory impressions from the trauma that seem to occur 'out of the blue'. A key question is how intrusions are triggered. One possibility is that PTSD is characterized by a processing advantage for stimuli that resemble those that accompanied the trauma, which would lead to increased detection of such cues in the environment.MethodWe used a blurred picture identification task in a cross-sectional (n=99) and a prospective study (n=221) of trauma survivors.
RESULTS: Participants with acute stress disorder (ASD) or PTSD, but not trauma survivors without these disorders, identified trauma-related pictures, but not general threat pictures, better than neutral pictures. There were no group differences in the rate of trauma-related answers to other picture categories. The relative processing advantage for trauma-related pictures correlated with re-experiencing and dissociation, and predicted PTSD at follow-up.
CONCLUSIONS: A perceptual processing bias for trauma-related stimuli may contribute to the involuntary triggering of intrusive trauma memories in PTSD.