'Quake brain' blamed for Cantabrians' weak memories and poor direction - study

Cantabrians finding themselves getting lost, or forgetting their grocery list may be suffering from trauma from the ...

Cantabrians finding themselves getting lost, or forgetting their grocery list may be suffering from trauma from the earthquake, according to a new study.

Trauma-induced "quake brain" is affecting Cantabrians' memories and sense of direction, according to a new study.

Research from the University of Otago Christchurch campus, completed two years after the earthquake and made public for the first time on Wednesday, found a group of people affected by the February 2011 earthquake found it harder to learn the route through a maze than those unaffected or not in Christchurch during the disaster.

Head of psychological medicine Professor Richard Porter said the "quake-affected group" identified as having experienced a degree of trauma during the disaster, made 13 per cent more errors while learning their way through a virtual maze.

Each time an error was made, it was recorded as a measure of their ability to absorb information and remember it until the route was successfully completed.

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The group included emergency responders, those who were injured or whose family members were injured, and those whose property or neighbourhood had been badly damaged.

Porter said the research showed the ongoing nature of earthquake trauma.

"People may find they were more forgetful and didn't learn new information that well, as well as navigating the changes in the road system in Christchurch," he said.

"It's subtle, but when you add it together it is quite substantial."

Cognitive problems were even greater for those who developed post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.

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"We do not know how long this effect is likely to have lasted.

"We are currently seeking funding to re-test the group of people to see if their memory has now returned to normal."

Porter said allowances needed to be made for people affected by the earthquakes, particularly those who were not in Canterbury at the time.

"For people who didn't live in Christchurch and were looking at workplace performances or someone's memory, they should take these findings into account.

"The same is valid for partners of affected people, they need to be sensitive to the fact people may not be quite as sharp."

Canterbury medical officer of health Alistair Humphrey said the findings were "interesting", despite the research not yet being peer-reviewed.

"They are not that surprising, but what they do seem to indicate is the effect the earthquake had on the mental health of Cantabrians was right across the board," he said.

He was hesitant to reinforce the claim the quakes had an adverse affect on Cantabrians' memory, but said Porter's research corroborated the increase in new mental health patients seen after the tremors, as well as relapses of existing conditions.

"Any person in Christchurch who went through these earthquakes, they may feel they are resilient and managed quite well, but it has had a profound effect on everybody.

"One of the important lessons we have all learned from the Canterbury earthquakes is that you do need a post-disaster recovery framework."

In February 2016 the news that the Canterbury District Health Board's mental-health funding would be cut was met with anger and frustration.

Funding information obtained by Stuff at the time indicated the gap between the region's mental health funding and the national average was growing larger.

"We are a province that went from lower than average mental-health problems presenting at our DHB, to a province where mental-health problems climbed and climbed and are still much worse than the national average many years afterwards and are particularly bad among young people," Humphrey said.

"When you're planning for disaster, you plan for the response, financial planning and the like, but what we know at the CDHB, is that the effects of mental-health problems on the population will go on for many many years."

 - Stuff

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