Trauma from extreme climate events has long-term effects on survivors’ brains, study finds

The psychological trauma suffered by survivors of extreme weather events such as wildfires may have long-term effects on their brains, according to a new study that further reveals how the climate crisis impacts cognitive functioning.

A growing number of studies and international government reports warn that extreme weather events such as wildfires are becoming increasingly common as the global climate warms.

For example, the annual western wildfire area in the United States has increased by nearly 1000 percent in nearly three decades, and California now experiences a designated annual fire season.

The research also uncovered symptoms of anxiety and depression common in communities affected by California’s deadly wildfire in 2018.

New research published last week in the journal PLOS Climate evaluated whether certain symptoms of psychological trauma related to the climate crisis affect people’s memory, learning, thinking and reasoning in the long term.

Examining cognitive effects in this way has revealed the mechanisms behind some mental health symptoms. However, there are still significant gaps in understanding the brain function changes of people affected by climate change.

Scientists, including those from the University of California at San Diego, evaluated participants’ cognitive functioning across a range of abilities, including attention and working memory, or the person’s ability to retain information for short periods of time.

They also tested the subjects’ ability to impulsively not respond – or response inhibition – and their interference processing ability to ignore distractions.

Brain functions were also analyzed while performing cognitive tasks using brain wave recordings obtained from electroencephalography.

Study participants consisted of three groups of individuals: those directly exposed to the 2018 wildfire, those indirectly exposed to the disaster, and an unexposed control group.

The scientists found that groups exposed to fire directly and indirectly engaged in fewer distractions than the control group.

It was also found that people exposed to wildfires had more activity in the frontal lobes of their brains when dealing with distractions.

“Individuals exposed to fire showed significant cognitive deficits, particularly in the interference processing task,” the scientists wrote in the study.

Studies have shown that frontal lobe activity is a sign of cognitive effort; this means that people exposed to fire may have more difficulty processing distractions and can compensate by putting in more effort.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine the cognitive and underlying neural effects of recent climate trauma,” the researchers said.

Citing some of the limitations of the study, the scientists said it was possible that the group differences observed in the study existed even before the traumatic wildfire event.

But researchers still believe the findings provide the first evidence of the chronic effects of climate trauma caused by wildfires.

“As the planet warms, more and more people are facing extreme climatic conditions, and as such, new resilience tools need to be explored from multiple perspectives,” they said in the study.

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