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Near-Death Experiences Change the Brain

On Aug. 24, 2001, Air Transat Flight 236, bound for Lisbon from Toronto, rain out of fuel over the ocean. For 30 minutes, the 306 passengers and crew on board lived with the realization that their plane could crash — and they could all die.

The plane eventually crash-landed in the Azores and all survived (80 were hospitalized), but the experience became seared in the survivors’ brains.

Now brain imaging shows the trauma literally changed the survivors’ brains.

Brain imaging of eight of those passengers, conducted nine years later, revealed the memories of that terrifying experience remained crystal clear and lit up distinct areas of the brain related to memory, emotion and visual processing.

The event also appears to have heightened their reactions to other negative life events.

"This traumatic incident still haunts passengers regardless of whether they have PTSD or not,” lead researcher Daniela Palombo, a post-doctoral researcher at the Boston University School of Medicine, told the Toronto Star.

"They remember the event as though it happened yesterday, when in fact it happened almost a decade ago (at the time of the scans).”

The neuroimaging study — believed to be the first examination of a group of people who all experienced the same trauma — was published online in the journal Clinical Psychological Science (CPS).

"Research on highly traumatic memory relies on animal studies, where brain responses to fear can be experimentally manipulated and observed,”  Brian Levine, senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, and senior author on the paper, said in a press release. "Thanks to the passengers who volunteered, we were able to examine the human brain’s response to traumatic memory at a degree of vividness that is generally impossible to attain.”

For the study, eight survivors were placed inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. While inside the machine, they watched a video containing news clips related to the Air Transat flight and recalled their harrowing experience a decade ago.

The scanner showed that areas of the brain associated with emotional memory — the amygdala, hippocampus, and midline frontal and posterior regions – lit up very distinctly as they remembered the event.

The timing of the Air Transat incident permitted researchers to introduce another factor in their study. Since the attacks of 9/11 occurred just three weeks later, the researchers then asked the subjects to recall the less personal trauma of the terror attacks.

The brain imaging showed the survivors’ brains showed a similar pattern of brain activity as they recalled the two events. When another group of people who were not survivors of the Air Transat flight were asked to recall 9/11 while in the scanner, they did not show the same enhanced reaction in their brains.

The results suggest the eight survivors react differently, in fact, more strongly to events than people who had not gone through personal trauma.

"What we think is happening is that perhaps passengers have somewhat of a carry-over effect,” she told the Toronto Star. "When they’re remembering 9-11, they have some interference from the Air Transat event.”
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