Neuroscience study seeks passengers who survived terrifying Air Transat flight in 2001

Attention: Health, Science Desks

For Immediate Release
Jan. 18, 2010

Toronto – Passengers from an Air Transat flight that almost crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2001 are being invited to participate in a study led by Baycrest’s world-renowned Rotman Research Institute in partnership with the University of Toronto and McMaster University.

It will be the first study of its kind to involve a large group of people who all experienced the same traumatic event under the same conditions.

“Even though all these passengers experienced the same traumatic event, they each bring a different brain to the event. Our study will generate important clues as to why individuals are affected differently by the same experience,” said Dr. Brian Levine, senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute, professor in the departments of Psychology and Medicine (Neurology) at the University of Toronto, and an expert in episodic and autobiographical memory.

In an intriguing twist, the research team includes a passenger from that terrifying flight! Study investigator Dr. Margaret McKinnon was on Air Transat Flight 236 that departed Toronto for Lisbon, Portugal in late August 2001. The plane, with 306 passengers and crew on board, ran out of fuel over the ocean and barely glided to safety on a small island in the Azores.

“Imagine your worst nightmare – that’s what it was like,” said Dr. McKinnon, who is now a research scientist in the Mood Disorders Program at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton where she studies patients who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and other psychiatric conditions. She is also assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences at McMaster University.

“This wasn’t just a close call where your life flashes before your eyes in a split second and then everything is okay,” Dr. McKinnon explained. The sickening feeling of “I’m going to die” lasted an excruciating 30 minutes as the plane’s systems shut down and crew prepared passengers for an ocean ditching.

Researchers are hoping for 40 to 50 passengers to participate in the study, which is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. It will take place at the neuroscience labs at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute and University of Toronto.

For passengers, it’s an opportunity to turn a terrible experience into a positive contribution for science and the quest to better understand the brain circuitry involved in re-living traumatic events, the complex interplay of emotion, attention and memory, and why some people are more vulnerable to suffering post-traumatic stress than others.

“For many people on that plane, the 30-minute exposure to acute stress and terror is only part of the trauma. They may be re-living that memory continually. We need a better sense of how to influence that to help minimize the nightmares, social disruption, and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Dr. McKinnon.

Passengers will participate in a structured interview with clinician-scientists where they will be asked to remember and talk about their experience on Flight 236, and reflect upon news images that were broadcast in the immediate days after the near air disaster.
Eligible participants will be offered the opportunity to have a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan that will enable scientists to identify distinct brain patterns as they recall their experience.

Because all participants will have experienced the same traumatic event, this is an unprecedented opportunity to study behavioural and brain changes due to trauma, said Dr. Levine. Data from the study could have implications for future treatments of post traumatic stress disorder by revealing the brain changes that relate to specific cues associated with traumatic memory.

Air Transat Flight 236 passengers who are interested in participating in the Baycrest-led study are asked to contact Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI) in Toronto at 416-785-2500, ext. 3084, for further information.

In addition to Drs. Levine and McKinnon, the research team includes Dr. Adam Anderson, Canada Research Chair in Affective Neuroscience at the University of Toronto and an expert in understanding the representation of emotion and its influence on cognition; Dr. Anthony Feinstein, associate scientist and neuropsychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, and leading authority on post-traumatic stress disorder in combat journalists; Dr. Morris Moscovitch, senior scientist at Baycrest’s RRI, professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, and leading authority on the neuropsychology of human memory; Dr. Rebecca Todd, a post-doctoral fellow at Baycrest’s RRI and the University of Toronto, studying the interaction of emotion and cognition; and Daniela Palombo, a graduate student at Baycrest’s RRI and the University of Toronto, studying human memory function.

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For more information on this release, contact:


Kelly Connelly
Senior Media Officer
Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest
416-785-2432
kconnelly@baycrest.org