American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has created a new generation of veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It has repeatedly been noted that these returning veterans have a particularly difficult time reconnecting with family and friends. Because of these findings, the impact of multiple deployments and prolonged combat exposure is shifting from the individual veteran to its effects on their ability to reestablish intimate relationships after the completion of their service.

Over the last 20 years, numerous studies have directly observed the firing of the same neurons of non-human primates while seeing a member of their species engaging in the behavior themselves. Cortical activity consistent with these findings has been subsequently discovered in the human brain. Some researchers have hypothesized that these neurons, referred to as mirror neurons, form one of the physiological underpinnings of interpersonal attunement and empathy. The present study will explore the possibility that mirror neuron dysfunction secondary to trauma may play a role in the etiology of relationship dysfunction in PTSD.

This study will first review the current research on mirror neurons and the neural systems they support with a particular focus on those systems involved in attunement, empathy, and affect regulation. Next, the impact of traumatic experiences on these systems will be explored. Finally, we will examine the possibility that mirror neuron dysfunction is a mechanism of action in the social dysfunction found in PTSD.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Post-traumatic stress disorder -- United States; Veterans -- Mental health -- United States; Mirror neurons

Date of Award


School Affiliation

Graduate School of Education and Psychology



Degree Type


Degree Name


Faculty Advisor

Lou Cozolino