Major Neurological Study Reveals Long-Term Mental Health Impact of Holocaust on Survivors and Their Descendants
A new study by Europe’s leading professional association for neurologists has found that survivors of the Holocaust suffered long-term damage of their brain structures as a result of their trauma, with mental health problems being passed down to their children and grandchildren.
The study, issued on Sunday at the 5th Congress of the European Academy of Neurology (EAN) — an umbrella body for neurology researchers and professionals across the continent — stated that “surviving the Holocaust had a life-long psychological and biological effect with grey matter reduction affecting the parts of their brain responsible for stress response, memory, motivation, emotion, learning, and behavior.”
The EAN’s research marks an important step forward for the emerging science of epigenetics — which studies whether trauma-induced DNA methylation modifications can be passed from traumatized individuals to subsequent generations of offspring. A 2011 study of survivors and their offspring 17 years after the genocide in Rwanda discovered that “both mothers exposed to genocide and their children had significantly higher levels of PTSD and depression than the control (non-survivor) group” who were surveyed alongside.
The research on Holocaust survivors and their descendants suggests that the effects of such trauma can continue into a third generation. “After more than 70 years, the impact of surviving the Holocaust on brain function is significant,” Professor Ivan Rektor — a neurologist from Brno, Czech Republic involved with the study — said in a statement. “We revealed substantial differences in the brain structures involved in the processing of emotion, memory and social cognition, in higher level of stress but also of post-traumatic growth between Holocaust survivors and controls. Early results show this is also the case in children of survivors too.”
Utilizing MRI scanning, the study looked at the brain function of 56 people with an average age of 79-80, comparing 28 Holocaust survivors with 28 “controls” who did not have a personal or family history of the Holocaust. Survivors showed a significantly decreased volume of grey matter in the brain compared with controls of a similar age who had not been directly exposed via personal or family history to the Holocaust.
Rektor said he hoped that “our findings and our ongoing research will allow us to understand more about the effect of these experiences in order to focus therapy to support survivors’ and their descendants’ resilience and growth.”
He added: “We may also reveal strategies that Holocaust survivors used to cope with trauma during their later lives and to pass on their experience to further generations.”