PTSD and memory: Canadian docs study survivors on plane near-disaster

WATCH: A new study that could help predict who will develop PTSD and why. Crystal Goomansingh reports.

TORONTO — Canadian psychologist Margaret McKinnon remembers it clearly: the newlywed was heading to Portugal on her honeymoon. Midway through the flight, the passengers learned they had to prepare for an ocean ditching.

It was Aug. 24, 2001 — Air Transat Flight 236 from Toronto to Lisbon lost all power while flying over the Atlantic Ocean.

“We were asked to put on our life jackets…the cabins depressurized, the oxygen masks came down…and several announcements were made that we would ditch into the ocean,” McKinnon, a psychologist at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont., told Global News.

The passengers were taught the crash position, to brace for the impact and followed the countdown to impact.

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READ MORE: Mental health of survivors after a natural disaster often overlooked, says expert

But the pilot managed to conduct an emergency landing on a small military base, saving the lives of all 306 people on board. McKinnon says death seemed imminent, now she lives to tell the story.

In a new study based on the survivor stories of the passengers on board, Canadian researchers say that memory plays a vital role in susceptibility to PTSD.

The Canadian research is extremely rare, too. When studying PTSD, scientists usually cluster participants exposed to a variety of events: car crashes, bank robberies, military missions — for the first time, each person interviewed in the study was exposed to the exact same trauma.

“We knew that it was going to be really a once-in-a-lifetime chance from a research perspective,” Brian Levine said. He’s a senior scientist at Baycrest Health Sciences and a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. McKinnon, who initiated the study, was one of the lead authors in the research.

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WATCH: Canadian psychologist Margaret McKinnon discusses the harrowing near-disaster aboard the 2001 Air Transat flight and how other survivors stories have led to a new study on PTSD.

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“You never have the opportunity where you have a group of people exposed to the same trauma so that gave us an opportunity to have a lot of control through a natural experiment,” he explained.

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The research is based on 15 passengers — they recounted their memories from that terrifying day, along with their memories from Sept. 11, which happened just weeks later, and from a daily encounter around that time.

Because the researchers had the moment-to-moment unfolding of events on the plane, they were able to probe the quality and accuracy of the passengers’ memories.

Turns out, about 50 per cent of the group developed PTSD. And in trying to piece together why, the researchers learned that a lot of it has to do with memory.

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Those who ended up with PTSD had a tendency to produce “external details,” these minute recollections that were stored but weren’t related to the event. It included how they were feeling at the time or some type of reflection.

“People have different degrees of control over memory and this is normal. Some people have very efficient, special, targeted memory. Other people have less inhibition on their memory,” Levine explained.

“Those people who may have less control over memory were the ones who were more likely to develop PTSD.”

The researchers aren’t the first to point to memory and processing of emotions as a risk factor in PTSD. Right now, treatment for the condition already focuses on teaching people to add context to their memories, for example.

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The researchers also noted that across the board, the passengers had vivid memories of that fateful day. This is contradictory to other findings that suggest that in traumatic situations, your memory of the event becomes fuzzy or distorted.

McKinnon recounts the 30 minutes in which the passengers and crew thought the flight would end in tragedy.

It waxed and waned between yelling, screaming and praying to periods of silence.

“There was a real stillness,” she said.

During the landing, the wheels set on fire, the runway was ripped apart and after sliding down the emergency chute, McKinnon and her fellow passengers ran from the plane.

To follow up, the team plans to conduct brain imaging in 10 of the passengers to see which areas of the brain could be tied to traumatic events.

The researchers’ full findings were published Wednesday in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

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