September 11, 2007

Cornell Study Examines Long-Term 9/11 Effects

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No matter where they were or what they were doing, all Americans were affected by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. A recent Cornell study has examined the specific effects of the tragedy on those who were in New York and in close proximity to the World Trade Center towers when they collapsed.
The Cornell study, which examines those individuals who were in Manhattan and witnessed the attacks, found that those people may have experienced trauma on a significant enough level to change the way their brains process and react to emotional experiences.
Emotionally and physically healthy individuals who have experienced trauma such as Sept. 11, but have not been clinically diagnosed with a stress-related disorder, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, may still exhibit many of the symptoms of PTSD. These symptoms can include difficulty sleeping, distressing memories, and avoidance of the site even several years later. The appearance of these symptoms in a seemingly healthy and resilient individual can be indicative of the long-term effect that trauma may have on people’s brains.
The study, conducted four years after the attacks, by Barbara Ganzel M.S. ’99, Ph.D. ’02, compared the brain scans of healthy individuals who were within one-and-a-half miles of the twin towers with those of other healthy individuals who were over 200 miles away at the time the towers fell.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the researchers were able to see how the brain responded when exposed to emotional stimuli; photographs of actors displaying fearful faces and calm faces.
When exposed to the stimuli, individuals who were in the vicinity of the towers showed hyperactivity in their amygdalae, the part of the brain that judges emotional intensity and generates fear related behavior.
In contrast, those individuals that were over 200 miles away when the attacks occurred exhibited normal behavior in their amygdalae when exposed to the same stimuli.
“The findings of the study suggest that even a number of years later, there might be subtle, yet real, changes in the brain following exposure to trauma,” Ganzel said.
The study has increased applicability beyond those who witnessed the Sept. 11 attacks, as over half of the American population has experienced trauma in their lifetime, making them more likely to develop PTSD or depression later in life.
“It is important that we study this now,” said Ganzel, “as little is known about the long term effects of trauma for those who appear healthy.”
However, “experience with trauma is a known risk factor for mental health disorders,” she added.
Judith Katz ’06 served as a student research assistant on the study for over two years, helping to recruit subjects and examine the findings.
“We posted an advertisement on craigslist that we were looking for subjects, and it was amazing how many people contacted us, including those who weren’t even eligible, who just wanted to share their experiences,” she said.
“It was a traumatic ex­perience that united New Yorkers and it was interesting to see how people were dealing with it four years after the fact, both through their involvement in the study and then through examining brain scans to see that there were individuals who were truly biologically affected by the event,” Katz said.
Eric Horowitz ’07, a student research assistant, was extremely impressed by the technology used in the study.
“It was amazing to be able to literally see what is going on in people on a neurological level, to be able to see the differences in their brains based on lived experiences,” he said.
“Through this technology and this study we can see, and therefore know, that people have been through something traumatic, and that it has changed them, and hopefully through this research we can eventually provide therapies to help them,” Horowitz said.