Data from European Academy of Neurology (EAN) - Curated by EPG Health - Date added 05 July 2019

New study reveals biological toll on brain function of Holocaust survivors

(Oslo, Sunday, 30June,  2019) Stress of surviving the Holocaust has shown a lifelong and lasting negative impact on survivors’ brainstructure, as well as potentially impacting their offspring and grandchildren, a new study shows1

The novel research, presented today at the 5th European Academy of Neurology Congress, found that surviving the Holocaust hadalife-long psychological and biological effect with grey matter reduction affecting the parts of their brain responsible for stress response, memory, motivation, emotion, learning, and behaviour.

Utilising MRI scanning, the study looked at the brain function of 56 people with an average age of 79-80, comparing 28 Holocaust survivors with 28 controls who do not have a personal or family history of the Holocaust. Survivors showed a significantly decreased volume of grey matter in the brain compared with controls of a similar age who had not been directly exposed via personal or family history to the Holocaust.

The study differentiated between survivorsabove and below the age of 12 years in 1945 and found that the reduction in grey matter was significantly more expressed inyounger survivors, which may be attributed  to  the higher vulnerability to a stressful  environment of the developing brain in childhood. In line with previous research, the study found a reduction of grey  matter  in  areas  of  the  brain  associated with post-traumatic stress disorder  (PTSD) in combat veterans and those suffering early-life stress experience. However, the research also showed that reductions in grey matter in other areas of the brain went far beyond what had previously been found in those suffering PTSD; with survivors suffering a higher level of stressbut  also  higher  levelsofpost-traumatic  growth. Despite having suffered extreme stress the survivorsreported that they were satisfied with their personal and professional life after the war.

The researchers are nowinvestigating the impact of the Holocaust on survivors’ children and grandchildren, and early results in survivors’children show reduced connectivity between structures of the brain involved intheprocessing of emotion and memory. Further research is set to identify biomarkers of stress resilience and post-traumatic growth and to determine whether transmission to offspring is based on  behavioural and psychological factors or on genetic factors.

Commenting on their researchfindings, ProfessorIvan Rektor, a neurologist from Brno, Czech Republic,explained, “After more than 70 years the impact of surviving the Holocaust on brain function issignificant. We revealed substantial differences in the brain structures involved in the processing of emotion, memory and social cognition, in higher level of stress but also of post-traumatic growth between Holocaust  survivors and controls. Early results show this is also the case in children of survivors too.”

“Our hope is that these findings and our ongoing research will allow us to understand moreabout the effect of these experiences in order to focus therapy to support survivors’ and their descendants’ resilience and growth. We may also reveal strategies that Holocaust survivors used to cope with trauma during their later lives and to pass on their experience to further generations”, added Professor Rektor.

Reference - 1. Life-long effects of extreme stress on brain structures –a holocaust survivor MRI study. M. Fnaskova, P. Říha, I. Rektor, presented at the 5th Congress of International Neurology in Oslo.



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