Researchers study Utøya survivors

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Researchers in Oslo and Bergen are set to study the brains of young survivors of the massacre on the island of Utøya two years ago. Their goal is to determine whether the trauma experienced by survivors fleeing the gunman’s rampage left lasting changes among those under age 25.

Sometimes roses just aren't enough to express pent-up emotions since July 22. PHOTO: Views and News

The massacre on the island of Utøya left scores of survivors with severe traumatic stress. Researchers now plan to study their brains, in the hopes of finding new means of helping them and others. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Newspaper Bergens Tidende reported on Monday that the project is “unique,” according to its leader Anna Marita Milde at the University of Bergen’s institute for biological psychology. “Many of the Utøya youth have experienced cognitive difficulties, for example problems with concentration and memory,” Milde told Bergens Tidende. “We want to chart such difficulties at several levels, to see whether the trauma and stress they were subject to have resulted in changes in parts of the brain.”

The brains of Utøya survivors between the ages of 16 and 25 will be examined by what’s called a “sophisticated” MR machine. Invitations to participate are being sent out to more than 500 survivors of the massacre on July 22, 2011.

‘Obligation’ to contribute
Nikolas Dale Skjerping, age 20 from Osterøy, was among those shot while he was desperately swimming away from the island where gunman Anders Behring Breivik had targeted young members of the Norwegian Labour Party who were attending an annual summer camp. Skjerping, newly elected as county secretary for Labour’s youth group AUF in Hordaland,  is more than willing to participate.

“It feels good that these experiences can contribute to others getting better help and follow-up if another such catastrophe were to happen again,” Skjerping told Bergens Tidende, adding that he views participation in the research “almost like an obligation.” He said he had a tough time during the year following the massacre and the terrorist attack on government headquarters in Oslo, especially when Breivik often appeared in media, not least during his trial. “When it became clear that Breivik wouldn’t appeal his conviction, it’s been easier to move forward,” Skjerping said.

Studies of traumatized survivors following other major attacks, including those in the US in 2001 and the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, have been carried out but Dr Olga Therese Ousdal at Haukeland University Hospital in Bergen said this is the first time the team’s MRI-scanning and other neurological methods will be used to examine youth response to traumatic stress.

Cooperation in Oslo
The researchers in Bergen will also cooperate with Norway’s National Hospital in Oslo (Rikshospitalet), where testing also will be conducted in association with the University of Oslo.

Milde said victims of a terrorist attack often can live with a sense of permanent alarm, long after the attack is over. “This chronic stress condition can have effects on the body’s hormonal function,” she said. “This can affect memory, concentration and the ability to learn.” The goal is to find new ways for health care personnel to help victims recover from attacks.

Young political activists from the Conservative and Liberal parties’ youth groups are also being invited to participate in the research as part of a control group that researchers can use to compare scans of survivors’ brains and those of persons not involved in the attacks. The goal is to have results within a year.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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