The study, presented at the European Academy of Neurology Congress on Sunday, compared the brain function of 28 survivors with the one of people whose family had not been involved in the Holocaust.

Brain structure change in Holocaust survivors hereditary, study finds

Young survivors of Auschwitz await the arrival of their Soviet liberators on January 7, 1945. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Experiencing the Holocaust might have affected survivors’ brain structure, creating a change that was passed on to their children, a study has shown.

According to research presented at the fifth European Academy of Neurology Congress in Oslo on Sunday, the horrific ordeals of the death camps left a mark on the survivors’ brain structure, specifically in the form of gray matter reduction affecting the parts of their brain responsible for stress response, memory, motivation, emotion, learning and behavior.

The study, called “Life-long effects of extreme stress on brain structures – a Holocaust survivor MRI study,” compared the brain function of 28 Holocaust survivors with the brain function of 28 people whose family had not been involved in the Holocaust utilizing MRI scanning.

As explained in a statement by the European Academy of Neurology, survivors showed a significantly decreased volume of gray 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.

The average age of the participants in the study was between 79 and 80.

The study also found that the reduction in the gray matter was more pronounced in those individuals who survived the Holocaust as children (age 12 and below). The researchers said that this finding might be explained by a higher vulnerability to a stressful environment of the developing brain in childhood.

The scientists also detected a similar reduction of gray matter in areas of the brain associated with post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans and those suffering early-life stress experience. However, compared to those suffering from other forms of PTSD, survivors presented a higher level of stress but also higher levels of post-traumatic growth, calling themselves generally satisfied with their life after the war.

“After more than 70 years, the impact of surviving the Holocaust on brain function is significant,” Prof. Ivan Rektor, a neurologist from Brno, Czech Republic, and one of the authors of the study, explained.

“We revealed substantial differences in the brain structures involved in the processing of emotion, memory and social cognition, in a higher level of stress but also of post-traumatic growth between Holocaust survivors and controls,” he added. “Early results show this is also the case in children of survivors too.”

The study is not the first that identifies epigenetic changes in the children of those who experienced severe trauma.

In October 2018, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study on “the Intergenerational transmission of paternal trauma among US Civil War ex-POWs,” showing that children and grandchildren of survivors of Confederate prisoners of war camps during the US Civil War were impacted by their fathers’ experiences.