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Device Helps Student Veterans with PTSD

Hanli Liu and Alexa Smith-Osborne

UT Arlington researchers have successfully used a portable brain-mapping device to show cognitive dysfunction among student veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The study by bioengineering Professor Hanli Liu, social work Associate Professor Alexa Smith-Osborne, and two other collaborators used functional near-infrared spectroscopy to map brain responses during cognitive activities requiring memory recall.

Published in the May 2014 NeuroImage: Clinical, the study involved 16 combat veterans diagnosed with PTSD who were experiencing distress and functional impairment affecting cognitive and academic performance. Number-ordering tasks were performed on a computer while researchers monitored brain activity using the noninvasive neuroimaging technology.

Participants with PTSD experienced significant difficulty recalling the digits compared to the control group. The deficiency is associated with dysfunction in a portion of the right frontal cortex.

Dr. Smith-Osborne has used the findings to guide treatment for veterans through her work as principal investigator for UTA’s Student Veteran Project, which offers free services to veterans who are undergraduates or are considering returning to college.

“When we retest those student veterans after we’ve provided therapy and interventions, they’ve shown marked improvement,” she says.

Numerous neuropsychological studies have linked learning dysfunctions such as memory loss, attention deficits, and learning disabilities with PTSD.

Dr. Liu says this type of brain imaging enables researchers to “see” which brain regions fail to memorize or recall learned knowledge.

“It also shows how PTSD can affect the way we learn and our ability to recall information,” she says.

Smith-Osborne says the findings can help mental health care providers customize treatment. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all plan but a concentrated effort to tailor the treatment based on where that person is on the learning scale.”


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