Understanding how experience and exposure to trauma changes the brain could improve diagnosis and targeted care for conditions like anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Benjamin Suarez-Jimenez, Ph.D., assistant professor of Neuroscience, has been studying this topic for the past several years and was awarded a new $3.5 million grant to use virtual reality and MRI to look into the circuitry of threat, reward, and cognitive mapping in PTSD, trauma, and resilience.
For the next five years, this funding from the National Institute of Mental Health will allow the ZVR lab to build upon work that investigates brain areas that build spatial maps, specifically to discriminate between areas of an environment associated with emotions. Suarez-Jimenez’s most recent research identified changes in the salience network – a mechanism in the brain used for learning and survival – in people exposed to trauma (with and without psychopathologies, including PTSD, depression, and anxiety). His prior research has revealed people with anxiety have increased insula and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex activation – indicating their brain was associating a known safe area to danger or threat.
“This project the RO1 will support will probe whether the neural processes we have identified in the past are specific to threat or if they expand to reward processing,” Suarez-Jimenez said. “We are also looking at how attention allocation to some visual cues of the virtual reality tasks changes from pre- to post-task experience. We are hoping that understanding these brain processes can help us identify better ways to diagnose PTSD and to improve treatment.”