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

According to a new study that reveals more about the effects of the climate crisis on cognition, the psychological trauma that survivors of extreme weather events such as wildfires experience may have long-term effects on their brains.

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

For example, the annual area of ​​western forest fires in the United States has increased by about 1,000 percent in about three decades, and California now has a designated annual fire season.

The research also revealed symptoms of anxiety and depression that are common in the communities affected by the deadly 2018 California wildfire.

A new study, published last week in the journal PLOS Climate, assessed whether some symptoms of psychological trauma related to the climate crisis affected people’s memory, learning, thinking and reasoning in the long term.

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

Researchers, including those at the University of California, San Diego, assessed participants’ cognitive functioning across a range of abilities, including attention and working memory, or the ability to hold information in the mind for short periods of time.

They also tested the subjects’ ability to not react impulsively – or inhibit responses – and their ability to process distractions to ignore distractions.

Their brain function was also analyzed while performing cognitive tasks using brainwave recordings obtained by electroencephalography.

Three groups of people took part in the study – people directly exposed to the fire in 2018, people indirectly exposed to the disaster and a control group that was not exposed.

The researchers found that groups directly and indirectly exposed to fire handled distractions less accurately than the control group.

It was also found that people exposed to fire showed greater activity in the frontal lobes of the brain when engaged in distractions.

“Those exposed to fire showed significant cognitive deficits, particularly in the disturbance-processing task,” the researchers wrote in the study.

Research has shown that frontal lobes activity is a sign of cognitive exertion, meaning that those exposed to fires may have more difficulty processing distractions and compensate with more effort.

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

Citing some limitations of the study, the researchers said there is a possibility that the group differences observed in the studies may have been present even before the traumatic fire event.

However, scientists still believe the findings provide the first evidence of the chronic effects of climate trauma caused by fire.

“As the planet warms, more and more people are exposed to climate extremes, so new resilience tools need to be explored from multiple perspectives,” they concluded in the study.

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