Post-traumatic stress disorder and memory: Prescient medicolegal testimony at the International War Crimes Tribunal?

Landy F. Sparr, J. Douglas Bremner

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


The nature of remembrance of traumatic events has been particularly controversial during the past decade as vigorous new research has reshaped thinking about trauma and memory. Memory alterations in traumatized individuals have been investigated within both theoretical and biological frameworks. There are different types of memory, and empirical studies have associated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with a simultaneous weakening and a strengthening of memory. Memory deficiencies in PTSD have been found to be related to problems in new learning (explicit memory), but other specific deficiencies are unvalidated. Recently, accuracy of memory has received particular scrutiny because considerable importance is attached to victims' recollections. In 1998, at the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, The Netherlands, a Bosnian-Croatian soldier was tried for aiding and abetting the rape of a Muslim woman. The defendant's lawyers suggested that the woman's memory was inaccurate, having been adversely affected by her traumatic experiences, and that the defendant whom she identified was not present during her interrogation and abuse. The prosecution disagreed and argued that memories of traumatic experiences in individuals with PTSD are characteristically hyperaccessible. Expert witnesses on both sides were brought in to provide medicolegal testimony about the scientific parameters of stress and its long-term effects on brain regions associated with memory. With the expert witness discussion as background, this article reviews the most recent research about the nature of memory in the aftermath of trauma and the politics of psychological trauma and the law.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)71-78
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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