New research led by the NEATLabs at the University of California, San Diego highlights the negative long-term effects of climate stress. The study, published Jan. 18 in PLOS Climate, shows that exposure to traumatic climates such as wildfires can have long-lasting effects on cognition, particularly the ability to process information in the presence of visual interference.

While post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become a recognized and much-discussed phenomenon following a fight or violent attack, the behavioral and physiological effects of severe climate stress are less well known. With severe climate events such as wildfires and hurricanes expected to increase in the future, studying climate trauma is becoming increasingly important. The new study used behavioral tests and EEG recordings to examine how exposure to the 2018 California campfire affected cognitive skills 6-12 months after the event (before the COVID-19 pandemic). Participants were tested on standard cognitive tests to assess selective attention, inhibitory control, interference processing and working memory, and the results were compared between those who had been exposed to the wildfire and those who had not.

The researchers found that exposure to wildfires was associated with subsequently greater difficulties processing sensory interference — quickly and accurately reporting information from a visual scene when surrounded by distracting or contradictory stimuli. Simultaneous EEG recordings showed that those exposed to the bushfire also showed more activity in their brain’s frontal cortex, indicating that they actually put in more cognitive effort and still didn’t perform as well. These findings are similar to what is seen in PTSD.

Communities and mental health experts should expect similar stress responses and cognitive problems following future wildfires and severe climate events, and should be ready with proven interventions that improve interference processing.

The authors add: “Our study shows that climate trauma can affect cognitive and brain functions, especially with regard to distraction processing. This knowledge is useful as it will aid our efforts to develop targeted intervention strategies.”

Magazine reference

  1. Grennan GK, Withers MC, Ramanathan DS, Mishra J (2023) Differences in interference processing and frontal brain function with climate trauma from California’s deadliest wildfire. PLOS climb 2(1): e0000125. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pclm.0000125