New research shows that the trauma of surviving the Holocaust permanently altered the brain structure of Holocaust survivors, and might impact the brain structure of their descendants as well.
The study, presented by neurologist Ivan Rektor, head of the Research Centre for Neuroscience at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, used MRI scanning to examine the brain functions of 28 Holocaust survivors and compared them with 28 people who were not persecuted during the Holocaust.
Even 70 years after the Holocaust, evidence of the way trauma rewired the survivors’ brains was clear: There was a significant decrease in gray matter in the parts of the brain responsible for memory, stress, emotion, and behavior.
While much of the brain remains a mystery, scientists have found that the human brain is composed of gray matter and white matter; and that gray matter helps the brain process information and can be involved in everything from muscle control to memory, emotions, and decision-making.
In previous research, scientists found a link between gray matter reduction and PTSD. Different traumas caused different gray matter reduction patterns. Some scientists believe gray matter reduction can be used as a predictor for future disabilities and cognitive impairments.
The study also showed that Holocaust survivors who were below the age of 12 in 1945 had more reduction in gray matter than did older survivors, perhaps because younger victims felt the affects of the Holocaust as their brains were still developing.
Rektor’s researchers are now investigating how this trauma could affect the descendants of survivors. Early results from children of Holocaust survivors suggest there is less connectivity between the brain structures associated with memory and emotion.
"Our hope is that these 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,” Rektor said in a press release.
Despite this, survivors told researchers they were satisfied with the lives they have built for themselves in the decades following the war.