Portable brain-mapping device uses NIR spectroscopy to assess PTSD

Researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington (UT Arlington) have used a portable brain-mapping device to show limited prefrontal cortex activity among student veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when they were asked to recall information from simple memorization tasks.

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The multidisciplinary study—which involved bioengineering professor Hanli Liu; Alexa Smith-Osborne, an associate professor of social work; and two other collaborators—used functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to map brain activity responses during cognitive activities related to digit learning and memory retrial.

Smith-Osborne has used the findings to guide treatment recommendations for some veterans through her work as principal investigator for UT Arlington’s Student Veteran Project, which offers free services to veterans who are undergraduates or who are considering returning to college. She notes that when they retest the student veterans after providing therapy and interventions, the fNIRS data shows improvement in brain functions and responses.

Liu explains that this type of brain imaging enables "seeing" which brain region or regions fail to memorize or recall learned knowledge in student veterans with PTSD. “It also shows how PTSD can affect the way we learn and our ability to recall information, so this new way of brain imaging advances our understanding of PTSD,” she says.

The new study involved 16 combat veterans previously diagnosed with PTSD who were experiencing distress and functional impairment affecting cognitive and related academic performance. The veterans were directed to perform a series of number-ordering tasks on a computer while researchers monitored their brain activity through NIRS, a noninvasive neuroimaging technology.

The research found that participants with PTSD experienced significant difficulty recalling the given digits compared with a control group. This deficiency is closely associated with dysfunction of a portion in the right frontal cortex. The team also determined that NIRS was an effective tool for measuring cognitive dysfunction associated with PTSD.

With that information, Smith-Osborne says that mental healthcare providers could customize a treatment plan best suited for that individual. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all treatment plan, but a concentrated effort to tailor the treatment based on where that person is on the learning scale,” she explains.

Smith-Osborne and Liu hope that their research results lead to better and more comprehensive care for veterans and a better college education.

Full details of the work appear in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical; for more information, please visit http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.nicl.2014.05.005.

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