After psychological trauma, why do some only some parts of the traumatic event return as intrusive memories while others do not? Intrusive memories are key to cognitive behavioural treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, and an aetiological understanding is warranted. We present here analyses using multivariate pattern analysis (MVPA) and a machine learning classifier to investigate whether peri-traumatic brain activation was able to predict later intrusive memories (i.e. before they had happened). To provide a methodological basis for understanding the context of the current results, we first show how functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during an experimental analogue of trauma (a trauma film) via a prospective event-related design was able to capture an individual's later intrusive memories. Results showed widespread increases in brain activation at encoding when viewing a scene in the scanner that would later return as an intrusive memory in the real world. These fMRI results were replicated in a second study. While traditional mass univariate regression analysis highlighted an association between brain processing and symptomatology, this is not the same as prediction. Using MVPA and a machine learning classifier, it was possible to predict later intrusive memories across participants with 68% accuracy, and within a participant with 97% accuracy; i.e. the classifier could identify out of multiple scenes those that would later return as an intrusive memory. We also report here brain networks key in intrusive memory prediction. MVPA opens the possibility of decoding brain activity to reconstruct idiosyncratic cognitive events with relevance to understanding and predicting mental health symptoms.
Why only some moments within a trauma intrude while others do not is unclear.
Neuroimaging may provide further clues as to why this is the case.
Multivariate pattern analysis, a recent neuroimaging analysis tool, was able to predict intrusive memories.
Those brain networks involved in intrusive memory prediction are presented.
Multivariate pattern analysis may inform future innovation in mental health.