How and why does Post traumatic stress disorder (Ptsd) impact the brain? blogs James Day

The aim of this blog is to understand and evaluate what impact Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has on the brain, considering why it changes the brain structure and functionality.


  • Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has gone by many different names (Shell shock, war neurosis, combat stress reaction) until the 1980’s, when the term PTSD was introduced.
  • PTSD is considered to be a psychological injury rather than a mental illness
  • PTSD UK said, “At the time someone is being exposed to this intensely fearful situation, their mind ‘suspends’ normal operations and it copes as well as it can in order to survive. This might involve reactions such as ‘freezing to the spot’ or instead the opposite ‘flight away’ from the danger. Until the danger passes the mind does not produce a memory for this traumatic event in the normal way. Unfortunately when the mind presents the memory for filing it can be very distressing. The memories such as the facts of what happened, the emotions associated with the trauma and the sensations touch, taste, sound, vision, movement, and smell can be presented by the mind in the form of nightmares, flashbacks and intrusive unwanted memories.”
  • PTSD can only begin after an experience has happened, being in a war constantly being surrounded by these experiences, has a real affect on the brain when the experience ends.

What causes PTSD?

  • Trauma from war
  • Serious road accidents
  • Violent personal assaults, such as sexual assault, mugging or robbery
  • A traumatic birth
  • Being held hostage
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Natural disasters, such as severe floods, earthquakes or tsunamis
  • Diagnosis of a life-threatening condition
  • An unexpected severe injury or death of a close family member or friend
  • According to the NHS ‘PTSD is estimated to affect about 1 in every 3 people who have a traumatic experience.’

The Brain – A complex system

  • The brain is one of the largest and most complex systems to understand (It contains 86 billion neurons (nerve cells))
  • It controls all parts of the body with many specialised parts working in conjunction together.
  • Parts of the brain can be easily damaged by mental illnesses (bipolar, depression) , Psychological injury (PTSD) or physical contact (Surgery)

The Frontal Lobe.

  • Functions;
  • The frontal lobe is the front part of the brain. It controls cognitive skills in humans.
  • Skills like memory, language, judgment and sexual behavior.
  • It is the primary controller of movement; consciously moving our muscles.
  • Plus the two key areas related to speech.
  • The most common area for a brain injury or damage to take place, through concussion, PTSD, dementia and strokes.

Parietal Lobe

  • Functions;
  • The parietal lobe is the part at the back of the brain.
  • It is divided into two hemispheres.
  • It processes sensory details, such as touch.
  • Helps understanding and processing maths and languages.

Temporal Lobe

  • Functions;
  • Involved with the primary auditory perception, like hearing.
  • It processes sensory input and deals with retention of visual memory.
  • Communicates with the hippocampus which plays an important role in the formation of long term memory.
  • Holds the primary auditory cortex.

Occipital Lobe

  • Functions;
  • The Occipital lobe is able to process information seen by the eye.

The Spinal Chord.

  • Functions;
  • To deliver messages to parts of the body from the brain.
  • To give messages to the brain from sensory receptors found all over the body.
  • To coordinate quick reflexes that don’t go through the brain (like a flinch).
  • The spinal cord allows the body to function (as it sends signals to parts of the body telling them what to do). Spinal injuries can be fatal or life changing to you and others. C1 and C2 considered the most severe (it can lead to full body paralysis, inability to breathe, reduced or inability to speak, loss of sensation below the injury).


How the brain is affected by PTSD

The Amygdala

  • This usually controls the reaction of fear in a human. In a case where someone has PTSD this can be triggered and magnified by anything related to the traumatic event.
  • As a result of PTSD, the amygdala becomes hyperactive and increases in size.
  • This leads to anxiety, panic and extreme stress.
  • People with PTSD find it hard to control their emotions as the amygdala is in overdrive.

The Hippocampus 

  • This area of the brain is associated with memory functions; converting short term memory to long term.
  • High levels of stress increase cortisol in the body which damages and destroys cells in the hippocampus.
  • This causes short term memory loss and difficulty retrieving old memories.
  • People with PTSD are unable to distinguish past and present experiences resulting in flashbacks.
  • For example a soldier suffering from PTSD symptoms may have a reaction to fireworks.

Prefrontal Cortex

  • This area calms down the reaction of the amygdala, to regulate the response to negative emotions.
  • The changes in the brain with PTSD mean there is a decrease in the function of the prefrontal cortex.
  • Someone suffering from PTSD exhibits stress responses from stimuli that often have nothing to do with the initial trauma.

PTSD causes bouts of fear to become longer and more traumatic, as your prefrontal cortex is not regulating emotions and fear responses properly


Frontal Lobe

  • PTSD suffers may struggle to find the right words to express their emotions.
  • The frontal lobe is responsible for language skills.
  • This area becomes affected by the trauma and impacts the persons verbal skills.

Neuroimaging showing the affect of PTSD
COMPARED TO a healthy brain.



PTSD causes areas of the brain to change as shown above.