Study: Holocaust survivors experienced changes in brain structure; Family impacted, too

OSLO, Norway — The inhumanity and cruelty of the Holocaust can not be overstated, and a new European study reports that holocaust survivors have dealt with lifelong negative changes to their brain structures. On top of this, researchers say their findings suggest that Holocaust survivors’ children and grandchildren are dealing with similar changes in brain structure.

Holocaust survivors were exposed to unbelievably brutal conditions during their time spent in nazi concentration camps. While it is more than understandable that survivors would deal with psychological stress upon release, researchers found that survivors’ experiences and subsequent changes in brain structure may have impacted a great number of aspects of their lives up to this very day.

The study’s authors, based out of Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, say that the Holocaust survivors they examined showed significant gray matter reduction in the areas of the brain responsible for memory, emotion, motivation, stress response, learning, and behavior.

In total, 56 people with an average age of 79-80 were studied using MRI scanning; 28 Holocaust survivors, and 28 people with no personal or family Holocaust experiences to act as a control group. Survivors exhibited a significantly smaller amount of gray matter in the brain compared to the control group.

Additionally, the study found that survivors who were 12 years old or younger in 1945 showed a much greater reduction in gray matter. Researchers theorize this may be because developing brains are more susceptible to stressful environments.

It’s worth noting that some of the areas of survivors’ brains were very similar to MRI scans of former soldiers dealing with PTSD, or individuals exposed to high levels of stress early in life. However, other areas of survivors’ brains exhibited much more gray matter loss than those cases. For what its worth, the Holocaust survivors examined for the study said they were satisfied with their personal and professional lives following the events of World War II.

The study’s authors are also actively investigating how the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors may be impacted by their ancestors’ experiences. The early results reveal reduced connectivity between brain areas associated with emotion and memory in survivors’ children. Additional research is already being planned to hopefully determine if this transmission is linked to behavioral / psychological factors or based in genetics.

“After more than 70 years the impact of surviving the Holocaust on brain function is significant. 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,” Professor Ivan Rektor explains in a release.

The study was presented at the 5th European Academy of Neurology Congress.