Acute impact on brain of China's quake survivors
Updated: 2009-09-01 13:38

LONDON: A new research revealed an acute impact of China's Wenchuan 8.0 earthquake on the brain function of its survivors, which also poses a risk to their mental health, a report said on Monday.

The report, published on the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS),  is about a study carried out by the West China Hospital of Sichuan University in collaboration with colleagues from King's College London and University of Illinois.

Based on data collected within 25 days after the quake, the study made a quickest response to the disaster of its kind.

By using a method known as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the survivors' brains from the 13th day after the earthquake, researchers found functional changes in the brain areas that monitor emotions and memories, said Professor Gong Qiyong, team leader from the West China Hospital who also holds a scholar position in the University of Liverpool.

The results showed that regional activities in these areas increased significantly while connectivity between different elements was reduced in healthy participating survivors in 13 to 25 days after the Wenchuan quake.

"It's like a computer network. Individual computers are carrying heavier tasks, while the connecting system is facing problems that decreased coordination," Gong told Xinhua.

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Dr. Andrea Mechelli from the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London said the research "has shown that these regions do not function normally in earthquake survivors who do not have symptoms of stress related disorders yet."

"This suggests that although these individuals may appear to be clinically healthy, they are in fact at risk of developing these disorders," he said.

Survivors of big disasters are likely to develop stress-related disorders such as Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And the proportion of PTSD in the earthquake survivors could be as high as 20 percent, according to Gong.

Last year's May 12 devastating earthquake in China's Sichuan gulped more than 80,000 lives and affected millions of people. Some of the survivors have suffered continuous pains and stresses.

"The ultimate aim of this kind of research is to reduce human suffering due to traumatic events as the Wenchuan earthquake," Mechelli said.

"Our research may help us identify those survivors who are at greatest risk of developing psychological disorders, and by providing early psychological treatment to those individuals we may be able to reduce psychological suffering," he added.

Further studies may focus on whether there would be structural changes in the brain besides the functional changes. It may provide further insight into how alterations in brain function evolve over time after severe trauma, and help to find more efficient ways of psychological treatment.