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Passengers provide insight into trauma and PTSD on anniversary of traumatic flight

WATCH ABOVE: On the anniversary of a terrifying flight that almost crashed, passengers may provide inside into trauma and PTSD. Toronto researchers are tapping into their experience to better understand how the brain works. Christina Stevens reports.

TORONTO — On the anniversary of a traumatic flight, researchers are tapping into the minds of passengers who thought they were going to die to better understand how the brain works.

Having a group of people with the same experience provided a unique opportunity for the scientists.

Exactly 14 years ago, on August 24, 2001, Air Transat Flight 236 from Toronto should have landed in Lisbon. But it did not reach its destination.

Combined brain scan image shows average across all passengers in the study. Baycrest Health Sciences

Instead, the pilots managed an emergency landing at a military base in the Azores.

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With both engines out, they glided in with virtually no power. All 306 people on the flight survived.

“It was very difficult to go through something like that,” said Dr. Margaret McKinnon with St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton.

“The cabin depressurized, the lights went out and we were wearing our oxygen masks. We were told to brace and prepare for an emergency landing and really understanding that we would be hitting the water.

“I had a pretty good sense that would probably be the end if that were to happen.”

She has vivid memories of the 25 minutes when they were in the air and didn’t know if they would live.

“People are screaming, people are praying, some people are very silent,” she said. “There’s also that sense of being in a lot of pain as well, because of the depressurization of the cabin.”

It’s precisely that common experience that researchers tapped into to better understand trauma and PTSD.

Eight of the passengers went into an MRI and watched videos of the flight, as well as other major events, including the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The idea was to provide a snapshot of what was happening in their brains.

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Scientists found during the Air Transat videos the part of the brain that handles memory lit up.

“The Air Transat disaster was associated with enhanced vividness,” said Dr. Brian Levine, study author and senior scientist at Baycrest Health Sciences.

“People were able to produce many more details, three times as many details, as they were any other event including 9/11.”

Additionally, interviews with the passengers found a connection between the amount of control they had over their memory and PTSD.

That could help researchers figure out a way to predict who might be more vulnerable to PTSD.

“For example in a military situation, where there is a high likelihood of developing that,” said Levine.

Understanding the brain’s response could also help in treatment.

McKinnon, who also works with people with PTSD, says she wanted to have a lasting impact on others who go through terrifying experiences.

“It was a real opportunity to turn something tremendously negative into something that was positive,” she said.

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