Perturbed threat monitoring following a traumatic event predicts risk for post-traumatic stress disorder

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Abstract

Background

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a chronic and difficult to treat psychiatric disorder. Objective, performance-based diagnostic markers that uniquely index risk for PTSD above and beyond subjective self-report markers could inform attempts to improve prevention and early intervention. We evaluated the predictive value of threat-related attention bias measured immediately after a potentially traumatic event, as a risk marker for PTSD at a 3-month follow-up. We measured the predictive contribution of attentional threat bias above and beyond that of the more established marker of risk for PTSD, self-reported psychological dissociation.

Method

Dissociation symptoms and threat-related attention bias were measured in 577 motor vehicle accident (MVA) survivors (mean age = 35.02 years, 356 males) within 24 h of admission to an emergency department (ED) of a large urban hospital. PTSD symptoms were assessed at a 3-month follow-up using the Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale (CAPS).

Results

Self-reported dissociation symptoms significantly accounted for 16% of the variance in PTSD at follow-up, and attention bias toward threat significantly accounted for an additional 4% of the variance in PTSD.

Conclusions

Threat-related attention bias can be reliably measured in the context of a hospital ED and significantly predicts risk for later PTSD. Possible mechanisms underlying the association between threat bias following a potentially traumatic event and risk for PTSD are discussed. The potential application of an attention bias modification treatment (ABMT) tailored to reduce risk for PTSD is suggested.

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