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How Trauma Causes Alternate Neural Pathways in the Brain

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This article is featured in the magazine, Rebuilding Officer Resiliency: A Treatment Guide. Download it now.

By Dr. Michael Genovese, Chief Medical Officer, Behavioral Health Services, Acadia Healthcare

Every time you have a new experience, whether mundane or intense, your brain forms a connection between two neurons; that connection is called a synapse. Synapses tell your body how to react to the world around you. When the brain is fully developed, it keeps the collection of synapses it deems important, which is determined by repetition and relevance. The synapses that are retained make up neural pathways in the brain, which governs the way we experience life.

When someone continually has traumatic experiences, it alters the neural pathways in their brain. These altered pathways influence how the person experiences the world and cause them to view ordinary experiences through a lens of trauma and fear.

For members of the armed forces, law enforcement and other first responders, traumatic, volatile and disruptive events can happen daily, and so we should expect their minds and bodies to be particularly susceptible to injury.

[Related: How First Responders Can Prepare for Traumatic Experiences]

Altered neural pathways can lead to symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive memories and emotional distress. In the world of behavioral healthcare, we call this post-traumatic stress (PTS).

[Related: Taking the First Steps to Healing from PTSI]

Because PTS is an injury that we cannot see, it is easy to overlook or dismiss its impact. But it is a serious injury, and all injuries require healing. When symptoms of post-traumatic stress present following a devastating experience, repairing the damaged neural pathways is crucial. The person needs to seek integrative care so that healing can begin.

With a comprehensive care plan, individuals can explore different avenues that lead to wellness and begin to heal the nervous system.

About the Author: Dr. Michael Genovese is the chief medical officer, behavioral health services at Acadia Healthcare and clinical advisor to Treatment Placement Specialists®, an initiative of Acadia Healthcare. Acadia operates a network of 576 behavioral health facilities with approximately 17,300 beds in 39 states, the United Kingdom and Puerto Rico. Dr. Genovese also serves as the medical director of the Officer Safety and Wellness Committee of the FBI National Academy Associates, assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Arizona and medical director of the Camden Center in Menlo Park, California. He is the former chief medical officer of Sierra Tucson. He is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, a member of the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry and the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Dr. Genovese writes, speaks, teaches and consults widely in the disciplines of pharmacology, neuromodulation and pharmacogenomics.​ To contact the author, email For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

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