The hidden price of repeated traumatic exposure

Einat Levy-Gigi, Gal Richter-Levin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Neuroimaging studies have demonstrated reduced hippocampal volume in trauma-exposed individuals without posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, the implications of such a deficit in this non-clinical population are still unclear. Animal and human models of PTSD suggest that hippocampal deficit may result in impaired learning and use of associations between contextual information and aversive events. Previous study has shown that individuals with PTSD have a selective impairment in reversing the negative outcome of context-related information. The aim of this study was to test whether non-PTSD individuals who are repeatedly exposed to traumatic events display similar impairment. To that end, we compared the performance of active-duty firefighters who are frequently exposed to traumatic events as part of their occupational routine and civilian matched-controls with no history of trauma-exposure. We used a novel cue-context reversal paradigm, which separately evaluates reversal of negative and positive outcomes of cue and context-related information. As predicted, we found that while both trauma-exposed firefighters and unexposed matched-controls were able to acquire and retain stimulus-outcome associations, firefighters struggled to learn that a previously negative context is later associated with a positive outcome. This impairment did not correlate with levels of PTSD, anxiety or depressive symptoms. The results suggest that similar to individuals with PTSD, highly exposed individuals fail to associate traumatic outcomes with their appropriate context. This impairment may reflect a possible hidden price of repeated traumatic exposure, which is not necessarily associated with PTSD diagnosis, and may affect the way highly exposed individuals interpret and react to their environment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)343-351
Number of pages9
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 2014


  • Context
  • Firefighters
  • First-responders
  • Hippocampus
  • Repeated exposure to trauma
  • Reversal-learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Physiology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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