HOLOCAUST survivors traumatised by the suffering they endured while in the Nazi concentration camps could have passed it on to their children and grandchildren, a study has revealed.
The mental health problems of those who managed to survive the brutality of the camps can be passed down through three generations of the same family, researchers at Masaryk University’s Research Centre for Neuroscience in the Czech Republic have found.
The findings were revealed on Sunday at the fifth Congress of the European Academy of Neurology (EAN) — an umbrella body for neurology researchers and professionals across the continent.
The study has revealed the relatives of camp survivors had significantly less grey matter, or neurons, in the parts of the brain.
It said: “Surviving the Holocaust had a life-long psychological and biological effect with grey matter reduction affecting the parts of their brain responsible for stress response, memory, motivation, emotion, learning, and behaviour.”
While much of the brain and how it functions still remains a mystery scientists have found that it is composed of grey and white matter.
Grey matter helps the brain process information and can be involved in functions ranging from muscle control to decision-making.
A study carried out in 2011 of survivors and their offspring 17 years after the genocide in Rwanda found that “both mothers exposed to genocide and their children had significantly higher levels of PTSD and depression than the control (non-survivor) group” who were surveyed alongside.
Researchers compared the relatives of survivors to a group who had no relatives connected to the camps.
Ivan Rektor, a neurologist at the university said the results indicated there was a deterioration in the brains of the children of camp survivors.
The research would appear to support the idea of “epigenetic inheritance” which suggests environmental factors can impact the genes of your children.
Professor Rektor said: “After more than 70 years, the impact of surviving the Holocaust on brain function is significant.
“We revealed substantial differences in the brain structures involved in the processing of emotion, memory and social cognition, in higher level of stress but also of post-traumatic growth between Holocaust survivors and controls.
What is grey matter?
Grey matter is a major component of the central nervous system.
It actually has a pinkish-grey colour in the brain and contains cell bodies.
White matter consists of axons connecting different parts of grey matter to one another.
Axons are the processes that extend from neuronal cell bodies, carrying signals between those bodies.
Once lost grey matter cannot really grow back at all.
The birth of new neurons does happen in the brain but only at a very low level.
Grey matter does decrease from adulthood into old age while white matter continues to increase from ages 19-40 but declines after that.
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“Early results show this is also the case in children of survivors too.”
The study looked at the MRI scans of 56 people aged 79 and 80, half of which survived the Nazi camps while the other half had no family experience of the Holocaust.
Professor Rektor added: “Our hope is that these findings and our ongoing research will allow us to understand more about the effect of these experiences in order to focus therapy to support survivors’ and their descendants’ resilience and growth.”
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