More Than Seven Decades After Holocaust, Survivors and Even Their Descendants Show Changes in Brain

At this time tomorrow, I will send a man to you from the territory of Binyamin, and you shall anoint him ruler of My people Yisrael. He will deliver My people from the hands of the Philistines; for I have taken note of My people, their outcry has come to Me. (Samuel 9:16)

More than seven decades after the murder of Six Million Jews in Europe and the fall of the Nazi regime, no one can doubt the impact on the psyches of the Holocaust on its survivors. 

But a new study just presented at the 5th European Academy of Neurology Congress in Oslo, Norway, has shown that the stress of surviving the Holocaust has a lifelong and lasting negative impact on survivors’ brain structure, as well as potentially impacting their children and grandchildren.

The Eureka moment

The novel research found that surviving the Holocaust had a lifelong psychological and biological effect by reducing the amount of grey matter affecting the parts of their brain responsible for stress response, memory, motivation, emotion, learning, and behavior.

Using MRI scanning, the study looked at the brain function of 56 people with an average age of 79 and 80, comparing 28 Holocaust survivors with 28 controls who do 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.

Shades of grey

The study differentiated between survivors above and below the age of 12 years in 1945 and found that the reduction in grey matter was significantly more expressed in younger survivors – which may be attributed to the higher vulnerability to a stressful environment of the developing brain in childhood. 

In line with previous research, the study found a reduction of grey matter in areas of the brain associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in combat veterans and those suffering from severe stress early in their lifetime. 

However, the research also showed that reductions in grey matter in other areas of the brain went far beyond what had previously been found in those suffering PTSD; with survivors suffering not only a higher level of stress but also higher levels of post-traumatic growth. Despite having suffered extreme stress the survivors declared that they were satisfied with their personal and professional life after the war.

The researchers are now investigating the impact of the Holocaust on survivors’ children and grandchildren; early results in survivors’ children show reduced connectivity between structures of the brain involved in the processing of emotion and memory. Further research is set to identify biomarkers of stress resilience and post-traumatic growth and to determine whether transmission to offspring is based on behavioral and psychological factors or on genetic factors.

Neurology Prof. Ivan Rektor offers his insight 

head of the research center at Masaryk University’s Center for Neuroscience Group in Brno in the Czech Republic – explained, “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.”

“Our hope is that these findings and our ongoing research will allow us to understand more about the effect of these experiences and to focus therapy to support survivors’ and their descendants’ resilience and growth. 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,” Rektor concluded. 

An Israeli professor weighs in

Prof. Stephen Levine of the University of Haifa’s department of community mental health, who has investigated physical effects of the Holocaust on survivors and their offspring commented: “The researchers are to be congratulated on their interesting results. aspects of grey matter reduction are also implicated in disorders such as schizophrenia and dementia. Both of these disorders are associated with Holocaust exposure in large Israeli studies.  However, linking Holocaust and combat experience is questionable on two grounds. First, combat experiences are age 18+, whereas Holocaust exposure based on this study points to a critical period to age 12. Second, although combat is traumatic and tragic, the nature of that trauma differs markedly to the Holocaust, which involved maximal adversities (such as loss of communities, social network, malnutrition, physical and mental insults and more).”