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Traumas like Sept. 11 make brains more reactive to fear

According to a new brain study, even people who seemed resilient but were close to the World Trade Center when the twin towers toppled on Sept. 11, 2001, have brains that are more reactive to emotional stimuli than those who were more than 200 miles away.

That is the finding of a new Cornell study that excluded people who did not have such mental disorders as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depression. One of the first studies to look at the effects of trauma on the brains of healthy people, it is published in the May issue of the journal Emotion.

"These people appear to be doing okay, but they may, indeed, be having more sensitive responses to upsetting stimuli," said Elise Temple, a co-author and assistant professor of human development at Cornell.

More than half the population experiences trauma, which makes people more likely to develop PTSD, depression, anxiety and physical illness later in life, according to other studies. Also, trauma has been found to make the brain's emotional processing centers -- particularly the amygdalae, the parts of the brain that judge emotional intensity and make emotional memories -- more sensitive in cases of PTSD.

The findings suggest that events that trigger shock, fear and horror that are within a normal range -- may cause similar changes in the brain that traumas do. Victims may experience lingering symptoms (bad dreams, jumpiness, thinking about the incident and avoiding the site of the trauma), but they are not severe. However, the kinds of changes that these traumas cause in the brain, the researchers suspect, create vulnerability to developing future mental disorders.

Specifically, the Cornell researchers found that three years after Sept. 11, 2001, the amygdalae were most sensitive in those who were close to the World Trade Center. These individuals tended to still experience lingering symptoms that were not severe enough to be diagnosed as a mental disorder. Those
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Source:Cornell University News Service


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