‘Quake brain’ effects suffered by resilient Cantabrians fade over time

New University of Otago research suggests the brain function of otherwise-healthy individuals exposed to event trauma has the ability to “bounce back” over time once the threat resolves.

Researchers led by Dr Katie Douglas at the University of Otago, Christchurch’s Department of Psychological Medicine, conducted a follow-up study on a group of Cantabrians, who had been exposed to trauma during the region’s earthquakes over a decade ago.

The original study, conducted two to three years after the earthquakes, showed participants who were exposed to trauma but didn’t develop psychological difficulties, still suffered from problems with aspects of cognitive function compared with non-exposed participants.

Dr Douglas says the new follow-up study, conducted 8 years post-quakes, shows the cognitive function of those trial participants is now normal compared with a group of people tested in Dunedin.

“This is good news as it offers preliminary evidence that there are no long-lasting effects on cognitive impairment after exposure to a traumatic event, at least in people who don’t develop a mental health condition. It suggests changes in their cognitive functioning and emotion processing may be related to exposure to continued threat in the environment, which improves when the threat resolves.”

The original 89 trial participants were recruited in response to articles, opinion pieces and community notices in newspapers and via word of mouth over the course of 13 months, from January 2013 to February 2014. All received a face-to-face assessment and completed diagnostic questionnaires to confirm they had received no earthquake-related psychiatric diagnoses or counselling.

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