'Quake brain' suffered by Cantabrians will fade over time - study

Source: 1News

A new study has shown how the brains of resilient individuals have the ability to bounce back over time following exposure to a traumatic event.

The quake-damaged Christ Church Cathedral.

In this case it's the Canterbury earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. They may have happened more than a decade ago, but the effects are still being felt today.

The Otago University follow-up study, eight years in the making, focused on the long-term psychological impacts on a group of Cantabrians.

No one died in the 7.1 magnitude earthquake in Canterbury on September 4, 2010, but it caused extensive property damage.

Just over 5 months later a 6.3 magnitude quake hit the region on February 22, 2011, killing 185 people. Houses were made uninhabitable, commercial property was destroyed and some areas of Christchurch were left wrecked by liquefaction.

Lead researcher Dr Katie Douglas told 1News those who participated in the research had been exposed to trauma during the earthquakes.

"They had identified that they were coping quite well with that. So we tested them about two or three years after the earthquakes and surprisingly we found some quite major difficulties in this group, in terms of their cognitive function. Which we termed "quake brain,” she said.

Douglas wanted to see how learning and memory, paying attention, disorganisation as well as processing emotions changed over time.

"That's what the current study is showing - that actually the sample of resilient people have improved over time. So that's faded or resolved,” says Douglas.

It’s a piece of research which has attracted a lot of international attention because it's very rare to have such a large group of people impacted at the same time, by the same disaster.

Study co-author, Associate Professor Caroline Bell says the study adds to the growing body of international research relating to how large groups in society react and respond to traumatic situations.

“These findings give us a sense of the effects of exposure to major threats from disasters such as earthquakes on wider populations. They are reassuring in showing that a resilient response is the most prevalent,” she said in a statement.

Redcliffs School principal Rose McInerney was teaching at the Christchurch school during both major earthquakes.

"Yeah it was a lunch time and we were having choir practise and everyone flew up in the air and landed on our bums," she told 1News.

The school was badly damaged during the 2011 quake and has since had to undergo a nine-year rebuild, vacating its original site after a cliff collapse made it unsafe.

"Behind us there were plumes of dust rolling off the cliffs and so we were just thinking about getting everyone to the front of the school. Getting everyone checked off and safe as possible. It was very frightening.”

Just like those included in the research, she admits she had moments of memory loss in the immediate years after the quake.

"I think for my own children who were young at the time. I wanted to try and present a fairly positive 'fake it till you make it' kind of approach, because I didn't want them to feel worried all the time.”

“I think that really helped me, but I definitely had moments where I forgot things and had a cry and would wonder what was next."

Douglas believes it's a protective reaction. People's brains go into "fight or flight" mode, when concerned with having to process a threat.

"Anyone in the Canterbury population would know that people have problems from time to time with forgetfulness or not being able to pay attention," she said.

It’s a study she hopes will benefit those still struggling.

"I think it will give people a lot of hope to know that actually, if you give yourself enough time. That you might be able to get back to your level of functioning that you were at before the earthquakes."

Years on from the earthquakes, McInerney feels settled.

"Now I just feel after 10 years that things are fairly normal for me and my family."

A new normal in the wake of such tragedy.