A hallmark symptom after psychological trauma is the presence of intrusive memories. It is unclear why only some moments of trauma become intrusive, and how these memories involuntarily return to mind. Understanding the neural mechanisms involved in the encoding and involuntary recall of intrusive memories may elucidate these questions.
Participants ( n = 35) underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while being exposed to traumatic film footage. After film viewing, participants indicated within the scanner, while undergoing fMRI, if they experienced an intrusive memory of the film. Further intrusive memories in daily life were recorded for 7 days. After 7 days, participants completed a recognition memory test. Intrusive memory encoding was captured by comparing activity at the time of viewing ‘Intrusive scenes’ (scenes recalled involuntarily), ‘Control scenes’ (scenes never recalled involuntarily) and ‘Potential scenes’ (scenes recalled involuntarily by others but not that individual). Signal change associated with intrusive memory involuntary recall was modelled using finite impulse response basis functions.
We found a widespread pattern of increased activation for Intrusive v. both Potential and Control scenes at encoding. The left inferior frontal gyrus and middle temporal gyrus showed increased activity in Intrusive scenes compared with Potential scenes, but not in Intrusive scenes compared with Control scenes. This pattern of activation persisted when taking recognition memory performance into account. Intrusive memory involuntary recall was characterized by activity in frontal regions, notably the left inferior frontal gyrus.