White matter microstructural changes as vulnerability factors and acquired signs of post-earthquake distress

PLoS One. 2014 Jan 6;9(1):e83967. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0083967. eCollection 2014.


Many survivors of severe disasters need psychological support, even those not suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The critical issue in understanding the psychological response after experiencing severe disasters is to distinguish neurological microstructural underpinnings as vulnerability factors from signs of emotional distress acquired soon after the stressful life event. We collected diffusion-tensor magnetic resonance imaging (DTI) data from a group of healthy adolescents before the Great East Japan Earthquake and re-examined the DTIs and anxiety levels of 30 non-PTSD subjects from this group 3-4 months after the earthquake using voxel-based analyses in a longitudinal DTI study before and after the earthquake. We found that the state anxiety level after the earthquake was negatively associated with fractional anisotropy (FA) in the right anterior cingulum (Cg) before the earthquake (r = -0.61, voxel level p<0.0025, cluster level p<0.05 corrected), and positively associated with increased FA changes from before to after the earthquake in the left anterior Cg (r = 0.70, voxel level p<0.0025, cluster level p<0.05 corrected) and uncinate fasciculus (Uf) (r = 0.65, voxel level p<0.0025, cluster level p<0.05 corrected). The results demonstrated that lower FA in the right anterior Cg was a vulnerability factor and increased FA in the left anterior Cg and Uf was an acquired sign of state anxiety after the earthquake. We postulate that subjects with dysfunctions in processing fear and anxiety before the disaster were likely to have higher anxiety levels requiring frequent emotional regulation after the disaster. These findings provide new evidence of psychophysiological responses at the neural network level soon after a stressful life event and might contribute to the development of effective methods to prevent PTSD.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety / pathology
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Diffusion Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Earthquakes*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Life Change Events*
  • Male
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / diagnosis*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / pathology
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology
  • Young Adult

Grant support

A.S. was supported by a Grant for Special Project Research from the International Research Institute of Disaster Science, a Grant-in-Aid for Young Scientists (B) (KAKENHI 24790653) from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, and Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research (H24-seishin-wakate014) from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in Japan. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.