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Is trauma passed down? CEITEC studies stress in war refugees

Every year since the 1990’s the Czech Academy of Sciences organises “The Brain Week” in March, joining the global “Brain Awareness Week” campaign which aims to raise awareness about the achievements and benefits of neurological research. Indeed, MU’s CEITEC studies how stress is passed down from one generation to the next because of experiences in war.

Sarajevo: war damages were apparent; human traumas not so much.

Stress is a natural response to perceived threats or problems; it causes numerous physiological changes in the human body, including the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol or adrenaline. Where stress becomes chronic or long-lasting, it can have adverse effects on brain health. The actual suffering from armed conflicts leaves deep scars which can become embedded in the brains of future generations (as secondary traumatisation). Neurologist Ivan Rektor and his CEITEC team have looked looking into this issue with respect to their research focused on holocaust survivors and their descendants; how they focus on people affected by the most recent wars in Europe.

“We tested – promptly and urgently – women from Ukraine who escaped the war and now live in the Czech Republic. Two psychologists from Ukraine from our team tested the women and found out that stress is present in all of these women, even though it does not necessarily need to be obvious. Having compared the results with a Czech reference group we concluded that changes are present on the brains of these Ukrainian women in terms of the structure and connectivity of stress-related parts of the brain,” Rektor explained, adding that their study is currently being peer-reviewed.

Ivan Rektor (second from left) with his research team studying traumas experienced by female refugees from Ukraine.

Another group of his interest is represented by people with experience with the war in former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s. He is looking for civilians who moved to the Czech Republic or Slovakia and their descendants and asks them for cooperation in the research project. “It is neither complicated nor painful. It entails blood and DNA samples, a simple psychological evaluation and MR brain scan. These volunteers are made familiar with the results of the MR and the psychological evaluation. They are a key factor in the success of the research,” Rector explains. The examinations take place at CEITEC; they take three to four hours and volunteers receive lump-sum financial compensation of their travel expenses of CZK 2,000. Volunteers interested in taking part in the project can contact CEITEC via an online form.

As Rector says, their research can help us understand the processes in the brain as ht processes long-lasting stress, and to learn about the factors which can contribute to resistance or propensity to stress. It is not yet clear what causes the traumatisation of the second and third generations, i.e. people born 30 to 50 years after holocaust. “Right now we are testing epigenetics, i.e. the process of suppressing certain genes. However, my opinion is that behavioural transmission is the more likely explanation, meaning psychological factors; we can see it on the third generation where there is only one ancestor who survived holocaust. We are still waiting for results,” adds Rector who joined the CEITEC team in 2007.