Pretrauma and Posttrauma Neurocognitive Functioning and PTSD Symptoms in a Community Sample of Young Adults

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Abstract

Objective

The authors sought to assess whether neurocognitive deficits in people with the posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms of reexperiencing and arousal are a consequence of these symptoms or represent a preexisting vulnerability factor for developing these symptoms after exposure to a traumatic event.

Method

A random sample of 2,097 young adults who participated in a longitudinal epidemiological study in 1999 and 2000 were reinterviewed in 2003 and 2004 after a major natural disaster (a widespread fire) had occurred in the region. At both interviews, participants completed a number of neurocognitive tests covering immediate and delayed word recall, digit span, coding speed, and vocabulary. Five pre- and posttrauma neurocognitive measures for 1,599 participants who were exposed to the fire were examined to assess the extent to which development of the PTSD symptoms of reexperiencing and arousal was associated with change in neurocognitive skills. Analyses adjusted for a number of potential confounding factors.

Results

Higher levels of fire-related reexperiencing and arousal symptoms were associated with less improvement in word recall ability at the second interview. However, levels of these symptoms were more consistently associated with having poorer pretrauma scores on all five neurocognitive measures available for this study.

Conclusions

The presence of the PTSD symptoms of reexperiencing and arousal may result in a relative decline in some measures of verbal memory over time. The more robust finding from this study is that poorer performance on some neurocognitive tests may be a vulnerability factor for developing symptoms of PTSD, not only an outcome of PTSD symptoms.

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