Brain structural plasticity in survivors of a major earthquake

Brain structural plasticity in survivors of a major earthquake


J Psychiatry Neurosci 2013; 38(6): 381-387

Su Lui, MD, PhD; Long Chen, MM; Li Yao, MM; Yuan Xiao, MM; Qi-Zhu Wu, PhD; Jun-Ran Zhang, PhD; Xiao-Qi Huang, PhD; Wei Zhang, MD, PhD; Yu-Qin Wang, PhD; Hua-Fu Chen, PhD; Raymond C.K. Chan, PhD; John A. Sweeney, PhD; Qi-Yong Gong, MD, PhD

Lui, L. Chen, Yao, Xiao, Wu, J. Zhang, Huang, Gong — Department of Radiology, Huaxi MR Research Center (HMRRC), West China Hospital of Sichuan University, China; W. Zhang — Department of Psychiatry, the State Key Lab of Biotherapy, West China Hospital of Sichuan University, China; Wang, H.-F. Chen — School of Life Science and Technology, University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, China; Chan — Neuropsychology and Applied Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, China; Sweeney — University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX, USA


Background: Stress responses have been studied extensively in animal models, but effects of major life stress on the human brain remain poorly understood. The aim of this study was to determine whether survivors of a major earthquake, who were presumed to have experienced extreme emotional stress during the disaster, demonstrate differences in brain anatomy relative to individuals who have not experienced such stressors.

Methods: Healthy survivors living in an area devastated by a major earthquake and matched healthy controls underwent 3-dimentional high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Survivors were scanned 13–25 days after the earthquake; controls had undergone MRI for other studies not long before the earthquake. We used optimized voxel-based morphometry analysis to identify regional differences of grey matter volume between the survivors and controls.

Results: We included 44 survivors (17 female, mean age 37 [standard deviation (SD) 10.6] yr) and 38 controls (14 female, mean age 35.3 [SD 11.2] yr) in our analysis. Compared with controls, the survivors showed significantly lower grey matter volume in the bilateral insula, hippocampus, left caudate and putamen, and greater grey matter volume in the bilateral orbitofrontal cortex and the parietal lobe (all p < 0.05, corrected for multiple comparison). Limitations: Differences in the variance of survivor and control data could impact study findings. Limitations: Differences in the variance of survivor and control data could impact study findings.

Conclusion: Acute anatomic alterations could be observed in earthquake survivors in brain regions where functional alterations after stress have been described. Anatomic changes in the present study were observed earlier than previously reported and were seen in prefrontal–limbic, parietal and striatal brain systems. Together with the results of previous functional imaging studies, our observations suggest a complex pattern of human brain response to major life stress affecting brain systems that modulate and respond to heightened affective arousal.

Submitted Nov. 30, 2012; Revised Feb. 28, Mar. 7, 2013; Accepted Mar. 7, 2013.

Acknowledgements: This study was supported by National Natural Science Foundation (Grant Nos. 81222018,81030027, 81227002 and 81220108013), the Programs for New Century Excellent Talents in University (Grant No. NCET-10-0596) and National Key Technologies R&D Program of China (Program No: 2012BAI01B03) and the von Humboldt Foundation. Q.-Y. Gong acknowledges support from his American CMB Distinguished Professorship Award (Award No. F510000/G16916411), administered by the Institute of International Education. S. Lui is supported by the Distinguished Young Scholars of Sichuan (Award No. 2011JQ0005).

Competing interests: J.A. Sweeney consults for Lilly, Takeda, Roche and Pfizer. As above for Q.-Y. Gong and S. Lui. Otherwise, none declared.

Contributors: S. Lui, X.-Q. Huang and Q.-Y. Gong designed the article. S. Lui, L. Chen and W. Zhang acquired the data, which all authors but X.-Q. Huang analyzed. S. Lui, L. Chen, L. Yao, Y. Xiao, Q.-Z. Wu, X.-Q. Huang, W. Zhang, Y.-Q. Wang and J.A. Sweeney wrote the article. S. Lui, Q.-Z. Wu, J.-R. Zhang, S.-Q. Huang, H.-F. Chen, R.C.K. Chan, J.A. Sweeney and Q.-Y. Gong reviewed the article. All authors approved its publication.

DOI: 10.1503/jpn.120244

Correspondence to: Q.-Y. Gong, Professor of Radiology, Neurology and Psychiatry, Huaxi MR Research Center (HMRRC), Department of Radiology, Center for Medical Imaging, West China Hospital of Sichuan University, No. 37 Guo Xue Xiang Chengdu, 610041 China;