Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that affects about eight million people every year in the United States. Between 7 and 8% of the population will experience some degree of PTSD in their lifetimes.
While most people understand that PTSD can contribute to stress, anxiety, and insomnia, a lesser-known issue is the impact PTSD can have on the ability to learn.
Effects of PTSD on the Brain
Trauma can affect the brain in multiple ways. Both short-term and long-term trauma can change neurochemical systems, which include the regulation and release of stress hormones, such as cortisol and norepinephrine.
Other areas that can be impacted include the brain circuits that make up the stress response. People who experience PTSD may experience changes in the:
- Medial prefrontal cortex
When neurochemical systems and brain circuits are altered by PTSD, the result is usually behavioral manifestations that can include anger, insomnia, and memory problems.
The Link between PTSD and Learning Disabilities
The idea that PTSD might lead to learning disabilities isn’t new, but it hasn’t yet to be added to the widespread understanding of the issues that affect people with PTSD.
An illuminating 2012 study explored the ways that PTSD can negatively impact associative learning.
The experiment involved groups of Israeli police officers diagnosed with PTSD and groups of Hungarian civilians with PTSD. These groups also included members who had experienced trauma without a diagnosis of PTSD. The study found that all the subjects were able to complete the first stage of the Acquired Equivalence Task, which involved learning an initial stimulus-outcome association.
The second part of the experiment involved applying the learned stimulus-outcome association in a novel situation. This is where the impact of PTSD became clear. The subjects who did not have PTSD were able to apply what they had learned in the first stage to the second stage of novel experiences. The subjects with PTSD were not able to apply what they had learned.
One of the potential issues hindering the ability to understand the connection between PTSD and learning disabilities is presented through the learning disabilities themselves. A 2013 study found that people with severe learning disabilities often lack the ability to communicate that they have experienced trauma.
It’s important to note the impact that trauma at an early age can have on cognitive abilities and learning. When pre-school-aged children experience trauma, such as the trauma caused by violence or abuse, it affects their ability to process emotions and language. They are more likely to act out because they cannot describe what they have experienced. It can be difficult or even impossible to untangle traumatic experiences from a child’s difficulties with learning.
How to Assess PTSD and Learning Disabilities
The 2013 study cited above offers some suggestions on how best to evaluate patients with learning disabilities for PTSD. These include:
- Looking for the effects of trauma, especially aggression.
- Evaluating potential symptoms of PTSD, including nightmares, flashbacks, sleep issues, and jumpiness.
- Asking about a previous history of trauma.
- Investigating past treatments and support when trauma is acknowledged.
The ability to articulate traumatic experiences depends largely upon the individual’s level of learning impairment. A person with mild learning disabilities may be able to describe trauma vividly. Those with moderate to severe learning disabilities may not be able to articulate their experiences at all.
Sometimes, a person who had no prior learning disabilities may have them after a traumatic experience, and a patient who had some learning disabilities before the trauma may experience a worsening of the disabilities. Any person who can no longer concentrate or complete a task that was previously within their capabilities may have experienced trauma that has impacted their ability to learn.
While studies involving the link between PTSD and learning disabilities are ongoing, there is a theory that PTSD destabilizes type 2 ryanodine receptors (RyR2 receptors) in the hippocampus. The hippocampus plays a key role in learning, and when RyR2 receptors are destabilized, neurons can die.
It may also be that treating the underlying causes of PTSD can help to repair the learning function. A study of military veterans with PTSD found a link between PTSD, depression, and learning impairment, including impaired memory and vocabulary.
Researchers are still exploring potential links between PTSD and learning disabilities, but further studies will likely expand on what we know. Understanding how PTSD affects our ability to learn will help treat people with both conditions and lead to better outcomes for these patients.