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Psychological trauma from natural disaster may change brain function

The most recent research conducted by my team reveals that psychological trauma caused by catastrophic weather and climatic disasters, such as wildfires, can have long-lasting consequences on survivors’ brains, cognitive functioning, and perception of distractions.

Extreme heat, storm damage, and life-threatening events such as wildfires are some of the ways that climate change is increasingly affecting people around the world.

Climate Change’s Link To Psychological Trauma

More than six months after the 2018 fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, California, my colleagues and I discovered that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression were prominent in the affected areas.

It also discovered a graded effect: Those whose houses or families were directly touched by fire exhibited greater mental health impairment than those who were indirectly affected, i.e., those who watched the incident in their neighborhood but suffered no personal loss.

The team at the University of California San Diego’s Neural Engineering and Translation Labs, or NEATLabs, the objective of this study was to establish whether the symptoms of climate-change-related trauma correspond to changes in cognitive functioning, the mental processes involved in memory, learning, reasoning, and thinking.

It assessed the cognitive functioning of our subjects across a spectrum of abilities, including attention; response inhibition; the capacity to refrain from responding impulsively; working memory; the capacity to retain information for brief periods; interference processing the capacity to ignore distractions. Using brain wave recordings produced from electroencephalography (EEG), we also assessed their brain function while they conducted cognitive tasks.

There were three groups of participants in the study: those who were directly exposed to the fire, those who were indirectly exposed, and a control group with no exposure. Age and gender were well-balanced between the groups.

Both groups exposed to the fire, whether directly or indirectly, responded less precisely than the control group to diversions.

It also discovered disparities in the neural pathways underpinning these cognitive variations. Those who were exposed to the wildfire demonstrated increased frontal brain activity in response to distractions. 

The frontal lobe is the hub of higher-level brain operations. Frontal brain activity can be a sign of cognitive effort, indicating that persons exposed to the fires may be having trouble absorbing distractions and compensating by exerting greater effort.

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Additional Studies

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The most recent research conducted by my team reveals psychological trauma caused by catastrophic weather and climatic disasters.

There is additional work to be done to determine whether the effects discovered are repeatable in research with big samples. We focused on a total of 75 people in this study. 

Additionally, scientists must comprehend how these consequences evolve when climatic calamities such as wildfires become more frequent.

In addition, the team conducted research with community partners to design interventions that can mitigate some of the identified effects on the brain and cognitive function. 

There is no one-size-fits-all answer; instead, each community must identify the resilient strategies that work best in their environmental setting. Scientists can assist them in comprehending the causes and identifying the most effective means of enhancing human health.

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