Recent years have seen global warming lead to more extreme weather events and more frequent natural disasters. Against this backdrop, Professor Veerabhadran Ramanathan, 2018 Tang Prize laureate in Sustainable Development, decided to allocate part of his Tang Prize grant to the NEATLabs at the University of California, San Diego, to conduct research on climate resilience. Led by Dr. Jyoti Mishra, this project has yielded some interesting results, lately published in the journal, PLOS Climate. It presents clear evidence that people directly exposed to weather-related calamities such as wildfires showed serious cognitive deficits, referring especially to their ability to process information and make decisions under conditions of visual interference. This report provides a quantitative analysis of how severe climate events could affect victim’s brain function and cognitive performance, offers critical data on how to restore communities as well as individuals to their pre-disaster state, and also points out a potential target for relevant neurocognitive intervention.
Using synchronized electroencephalography (EEG) brain recordings, the researchers demonstrated that those directly exposed to wildfires had stronger fronto-parietal response to stimuli. Because the fronto-parietal regions play a key role in various cognitive functions, stronger activity in the frontal cortices of the participants’ brains indicated that a compensatory mechanism was activated for cognitive control, meaning they were making more cognitive effort but still not performing well. These findings are similar to those detected in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Through EEG recordings and psychological testing on the interplay between trauma, anxiety and depression, this new study investigates how exposure to the 2018 California wildfires affected one’s cognitive ability 6-12 months after the event (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic). The participants underwent cognitive assessments consisting of selective attention, response inhibition, working memory, and non-emotional and emotional interference processing. The results were then compared with those gathered from people not exposed to wildfires.
While 725 Californians living through the 2018 Camp Fire were involved in a recent study and were found to exhibit symptoms of PTSD, anxiety and depression, the new study focuses on a subsample of 75 of these individuals: 27 directly exposed with some of their homes destroyed, 21 witnessing the wildfire but not directly impacted, and 27 non-exposed in a control group. 67% of the directly exposed and 14% of the indirectly exposed reported having experienced recent trauma, and none in the control group reported suffering from trauma.
The conclusion suggests that as the planet warms, an increasing number of people are at risk of facing extreme climate conditions. It is ever more imperative to explore different avenues to building climate resilience. Therefore, this study identifies a possible neuro-cognitive therapeutic target and offers helpful guidance on dealing with extreme weather events caused by climate change.
For more information about the research, see https://journals.plos.org/climate/article?id=10.1371/journal.pclm.0000125
About Veerabhadran Ramanathan
Professor Ramanathan and Dr. James Hansen were jointly awarded the 2018 Tang Prize in Sustainable Development and shared a cash prize of NT$ 50 million (approx. US$1.75), which includes a grant of NT$10 million (approx. US$0.35 million) intended to support laureates’ research and education projects. Professor Ramanathan is the first to point out that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are a type of greenhouse gases. As early as 1975, he has discovered that halocarbons, especially CFCs widely used in the production of refrigerants, had a strong greenhouse effect. CFCs not only deplete the ozone layer but, like carbon dioxide, their existence also has negative ramifications for the global climate. The research findings presented by Professor Ramanathan were at the core of the 1985 Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and significantly informed the negotiations for the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.
About the Tang Prize
The advent of globalization has enabled mankind to enjoy the convenience brought forth by the advancement in civilization and science. Yet a multitude of challenges, such as climate change, the emergence of new infectious diseases, wealth gap, and moral degradation, have surfaced along the way. As a response, Dr. Samuel Yin established the Tang Prize in December 2012. It consists of four award categories, namely Sustainable Development, Biopharmaceutical Science, Sinology, and Rule of Law. Every two years, four independent and professional selection committees made up of distinguished international experts and scholars, including several Nobel laureates, choose Tang Prize winners from a pool of nominees who have influenced and made substantive contributions to the world, regardless of their ethnicity, nationality or gender. A cash prize of NT$50 million (approx. US$1.75 million) is allocated to each category, with NT$10 million of it (approx. US$ 0.35 million) designated as a research grant to fund laureates’ research and education projects. The hope is to encourage more people with professional knowledge and skills to address mankind’s most urgent needs in this century, and to become leading forces behind the development of human society through their outstanding research and civic engagement.