Using Duke-UNC Highlights to Study PTSD


Duke basketball fans might argue that a big win against UNC has significant cultural relevance. And in a sense, they're right. (Before I explain, I swear I'm not kissing up to the mental_floss co-founders, editor-in-chief of the magazine, or managing editor of the website, who all graduated from Duke.)

Researchers at Duke have gained a better understanding of cognition and how PTSD works by forcing, er, asking subjects to watch a 2000 Duke-UNC game, a contest Duke won in overtime. Games can elicit many strong emotions, which researchers try to encourage in PTSD studies.

After subjects passed a basketball literacy exam, researchers asked two-dozen college-aged men from Duke and UNC to watch the 2000 game. Each group viewed the footage three times with like-minded fans before undergoing an MRI scan. In the MRI, subjects watched several 12-seconds clips of the game, which cut off right before a shot. Participants then told the researchers whether the player made the shot or not. In each case, subjects were better able to remember if their team's player made the basket than if he missed it.

Participants were not as good at recalling a bad shot by their team, or a good shot by the other team. Researchers led by Kevin LaBar and David Rubin found that positive memories improve recall. Using the MRI images, researchers noticed that a variety of regions in the brain work together to recreate a memory—the amygdala provides emotionality, the hippocampus helps with recall, and the pre-frontal cortex aids in empathy, allowing the participants to relate to team members and fans. Sometimes sensory motor areas activate, helping a subject imagine he is the shooter. Unfortunately, memories of traumatic events are stored in the brain in the same way.