Sensing the invisible: Differential sensitivity of visual cortex and amygdala to traumatic context

Talma Hendler, Pia Rotshtein, Yaara Yeshurun, Tal Weizmann, Itamar Kahn, Dafna Ben-Bashat, Rafael Malach, Avi Bleich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


To what extent does emotional traumatic context affect sensory processing in the brain? A striking example of emotional impact on sensation is manifested in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in which a severe emotional trauma produces recurrent and vivid unpleasant sensory recollections. Here we report on an fMRI study exploring the sensory processing of trauma-related pictures in the visual cortex and amygdala in respect to PTSD. The impact of traumatic experience on brain responses was tested in relation to stimuli content and its level of recognition in a parametric factorial design. Twenty combat veterans, 10 with and 10 without PTSD, viewed backward-masked images of combat and noncombat content, presented at below, near, and above recognition thresholds. The response to combat content evoked more activation in the visual cortex in PTSD subjects than in non-PTSD subjects, only when images were presented at below recognition threshold. By contrast, the amygdala demonstrated increased activation in PTSD subjects irrespective of content and recognition threshold of the images. These intriguing findings are compatible with the notion that in PTSD, emotional traumatic experience could modify visual processing already at the preattentive level. On the other hand, lack of content specificity in the amygdala point to a possible predisposed mechanism for pathological processing of traumatic experience. The differential sensitivity of the amygdala and visual cortex to traumatic context implies distinct roles of limbic and sensory regions in the registration and recollection of emotional experience in the brain.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)587-600
Number of pages14
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Jul 2003
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was funded by the Adams Super Center for Brain Research, Tel Aviv University, and by the Israel Defence Ministry. We thank Dr. Pazit Pianka for significant help in preparing the manuscript, Ariella Stein for assistance in data analysis, Eli Okon for technical support, Michal Harel for cortical surface reconstruction, and all the subjects who volunteered to participate in the various experiments.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


Dive into the research topics of 'Sensing the invisible: Differential sensitivity of visual cortex and amygdala to traumatic context'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this