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Research shows how a common form of trauma can seriously alter your brain chemistry: ‘[The findings] are striking’

“We are learning more about how people exposed to trauma learn to distinguish between what is safe and what is not.”

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Trauma from experiencing extreme weather events and other climate disasters can change the way your brain works, making it harder to process information, according to a new study

Researchers from the University of California and California State University analyzed existing electroencephalography (EEG) scans taken from survivors of California’s 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in state history. 

They then compared the group to a control population that had never been exposed to the fire, finding that those who had survived the fire showed significant differences in brain activity and cognitive function.

These findings are worthy of note, as much of the previous research related to climate change-caused disasters focused on more subjective, self-reported impacts like mood and stress disorders. Co-author Jyoti Mishra told The Hill that this study aimed to identify more objective changes to the brain.

“And we find that indeed, there are specific cognitive differences relative to a control population that was never exposed to the fires,” she told the outlet.

For instance, fire survivors were more prone to distractibility. They also appeared to have higher frontal lobe activity, which indicates they were putting in more effort to process information. 

Over the last 50 years, the frequency of weather disasters has increased by five times, according to the World Meteorological Organization. These catastrophes kill an average of 115 people and cause an estimated $202 million in losses every day, WHO reports.

The new findings add to a body of research that explores how trauma affects the brain. For instance, researchers from the University of Rochester found that trauma can be life-changing for an individual, physically altering the brain, which appears to re-wire itself after these experiences.

“We are learning more about how people exposed to trauma learn to distinguish between what is safe and what is not,” Benjamin Suarez-Jimenez, one of the study’s authors, told Neuroscience News. “Their brain is giving us insight into what might be going awry in specific mechanisms that are impacted by trauma exposure, especially when emotion is involved.” 

Mishra says that the new study is important in understanding how natural disasters can affect mental wellness.

“I think mental health has been overlooked for a long time in this context,” Mishra told The Hill. “The objective findings that we have, in terms of the cognitive and brain function changes, they are striking in that they appear even six months to a year after the first disaster actually hit. So the communities are living, in this case, with changes in their physiology that are long-lasting and coping with that stress on a daily basis.”

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