Study examining moral injury in health care workers is focusing on functional brain changes


LONDON, ON For many health care workers, the past year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on their mental health. Recognizing this is a growing concern, a London research team from Lawson Health Research Institute and Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry is examining moral injury amongst health care workers by imaging the effects on the brain.

“We are trying to look closely at what happens in the brain when a person recalls a moral injury event,” says Dr. Ruth Lanius, Associate Scientist at Lawson and Professor at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. “By understanding the changes happening in the brain, we may be better able to treat individuals suffering from moral injury.”

Moral injury refers to an injury to an individual’s moral conscious which can produce profound emotional guilt and shame. During this ongoing pandemic, some health care workers have experienced emotionally difficult situations that resulted in moral injury.

“Those suffering from moral injury have a cognitive or thinking component which may include repeated thoughts that they didn’t provide the best care for example, or that they let their family down do to their intense work schedule or need to self-isolated,” explains Dr. Lanius, who is also a psychiatrist at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC). ‘These thoughts are coupled with intense visceral distress, a gnawing sensation in the stomach or the feeling like one is being eaten up inside. I think once we help resolve the visceral distress, we will also see the negative thinking patterns settle down.”

The new study will involve around 60 health care workers. These research participants will undergo a functional MRI scan at St. Joseph's Health Care London at the beginning of the study and have the option to receive eight weeks of treatment. Then, another MRI scan will be done to see if and how the moral injury changes and possibly resolves within the brain. “This can be very validating for the health care workers since brain scans can make the invisible wound of moral injury visible,” adds Dr. Lanius.

The research team’s goal is to better understand what networks of the brain are activated with moral injury. Dr. Lanius hopes this would help establish more neuroscientifically guided treatments. “We have to help our health care workers heal from the tremendous hardships they often endure.”

Health care workers are still being recruited for this study. Interested participants can contact Research Coordinator Suzy Southwell 519-685-8500 ext. 35186 or @email.

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About Lawson Health Research Institute

Lawson Health Research Institute is one of Canada’s top hospital-based research institutes, tackling the most pressing challenges in health care. As the research institute of London Health Sciences Centre and St. Joseph’s Health Care London, our innovation happens where care is delivered. Lawson research teams are at the leading-edge of science with the goal of improving health and the delivery of care for patients. Working in partnership with Western University, our researchers are encouraged to pursue their curiosity, collaborate often and share their discoveries widely. Research conducted through Lawson makes a difference in the lives of patients, families and communities around the world. To learn more, visit

About Western

Western delivers an academic experience second to none. Since 1878, The Western Experience has combined academic excellence with life-long opportunities for intellectual, social and cultural growth in order to better serve our communities. Our research excellence expands knowledge and drives discovery with real-world application. Western attracts individuals with a broad worldview, seeking to study, influence and lead in the international community.

About The Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry

The Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University is one of Canada’s preeminent medical and dental schools. Established in 1881, it was one of the founding schools of Western University and is known for being the birthplace of family medicine in Canada. For more than 130 years, the School has demonstrated a commitment to academic excellence and a passion for scientific discovery. 

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Lawson Health Research Institute
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