Evaluating Effects of PTSD on Active Duty Police Officers

Published February 14, 2018

Department of Neurology researchers are being funded by the National Institute of Justice to study the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on the ability of police officers to make critical decisions in their work.

“Our study is the only one, to our knowledge, that will examine the neurobiology of rapid decision-making in police officers.”
Associate professor of clinical neurology

“In spite of the repeated exposure of police officers to traumatic events and the prevalence of PTSD symptomatology among officers, there are few studies to date that have examined the effects of PTSD on both the psychological and neurophysiological basis of police decision-making,” says Janet L. Shucard, PhD, associate professor of clinical neurology, and principal investigator on the grant.

“A major emphasis of our proposal is to characterize the impact of PTSD symptomology on behavioral, psychological and neurological indices of cognitive processes that are involved in rapid decision-making.”

PTSD May Cause Disruptions in Inhibitory Processes

The neurobiological model of PTSD proposes that a dysregulation occurs in the brain circuits involved in attention, arousal and alerting functions.  

Inhibitory mechanisms are critical for normal information processing, so that the brain can minimize or inhibit distracting stimuli and enhance attentional control toward task-related information, says Shucard, associate director of the Division of Cognitive and Behavioral Neurosciences in the Department of Neurology.

“Recent studies have shown that inhibitory processes may be disrupted in PTSD, in turn, leading to disruptions in cognition, arousal and accurate task performance,” she notes. “We hypothesize that PTSD impairs the attention and response control processes that are necessary for rapid and accurate decision-making.” 

Studying Neural Basis Decision-Making

Researchers will record electrophysiological activity while police officers and controls perform a go/no-go task.

Paradigms such as the go/no-go task have been used to study the neural basis rapid decision-making, which includes attention, cognitive control and responding or inhibiting a response.

During go/no-go tasks, participants have to maintain their attention over several minutes and respond to target stimuli (go trials) but inhibit their response to other stimuli (no-go trials).

Psychological interviews and written tests will also be conducted to measure the presence and severity of PTSD symptoms. Other psychological tests of depression and anxiety also will be administered, Shucard says.

Results Could Lead to Early Intervention Strategies

“Very few studies have examined brain structure and function in police officers, Shucard says. “Our study is the only one, to our knowledge, that will examine the neurobiology of rapid decision-making in police officers.”

Shucard says, if successful, results of the study could convince police agencies to initiate early intervention and empirically based training strategies for PTSD in police officers at a point before the development of symptoms.

“Furthermore, we hope to be able to identify specific measures that are optimal as behavioral and neurophysiological outcome measures for future work,” she adds.

Co-principal investigators from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences on the three-year, $814,000 grant titled “The Effects of Trauma Exposure on Neurophysiological, Cognitive and Psychological Function in Active Duty Police Officers,” are:

John M. Violanti, PhD, research professor of epidemiology and environmental health in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions, is also a co-principal investigator.