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New Study Shows How Trauma Changes Brain Responses

A new study provides invaluable insight into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after the brain processes of a group of survivors of an emergency plane crash were analysed. The results might help understand brain responses and storage relating to traumatic memories to better comprehend PTSD. The paper, entitled “The Neural Correlates of Memory for a Life-Threatening Event/ An fMRI Study of Passengers From Flight AT236″, has been published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.


The passengers onboard Air Transat Flight 236 believed they were going to die when the aircraft had a fuel leak back in 2001. It was thought that they would crash into the Atlantic Ocean; they had dropped tens of thousands of meters within minutes. Fortunately though, the pilots made an emergency crash on a military base in the Azores.

The brains of 8 individuals who were passengers onboard the flight were scanned as they were requested to remember the experience. The study is the first of its kind to investigate the brain processes of people having experienced the same trauma at once.

The memories of the passengers pertaining to the event were found to be extremely detailed.

“This traumatic incident still haunts passengers regardless of whether they have PTSD or not,” said lead author Daniela Palombo in a statement. “They remember the event as though it happened yesterday, when in fact it happened almost a decade ago [the scans were conducted in 2011]. Other more mundane experiences tend to fade with the passage of time, but trauma leaves a lasting memory trace.”

“We’ve uncovered some hints into the brain mechanisms through which this may occur,” she added.


As part of the experiment, the survivors watched news footage of the emergency crash. They also spoke of the experience from inside a function magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. Footage from the 9/11 events as well as that of a neutral event were also showed to them. The response of their brains was then observed.

The results show that a network of brain areas – the amygdala, hippocampus and midline frontal and posterior regions – involved in emotional memory were triggered when the patients recalled that day. On the other hand, this did not happen when they talked of the neutral events. But, when they recalled the 9/11 events, a similar network of brain regions were activated in spite of it not having been a personal experience. It is to be noted that the latter happened 3 weeks after their crash.

Furthermore, the researchers observed the brains of another group of people who had not experienced personal traumas. They were made to watch the same 9/11 footage, but no such response was found.

The results might demonstrate how trauma changes a person.

“[The results] may indicate that the Air Transat flight scare changed the way the passengers process new information, possibly making them more sensitive to other negative life experiences,” they explain.

“Here we have a group of people who all experienced the same extremely intense trauma. Some were more affected and went on to develop PTSD; some did not,”said Palombo. “How each of them responded to this terrifying event has been informative for helping us move a step closer toward understanding the brain processes involved in traumatic memory.”


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