SBU researchers link PTSD and dementia risk for 9/11 responders

SBU researchers link PTSD and dementia risk for 9/11 responders

Sean Clouston

By Daniel Dunaief

Every year, the country pauses on 9/11, remembering the victims of the terrorist attacks and reflecting on the safety and security of the country. At the same time, a Stony Brook University study continues not only to remember the first responders but also to understand the physical and mental consequences of the work police, firefighters and other first responders performed in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

Benjamin Luft

Recently, Sean Clouston, an associate professor in the Department of Family, Population & Preventive Medicine at SBU Renaissance School of Medicine, and Ben Luft, the director of the SBU WTC Health and Wellness Program since 2003, published research in which they demonstrated a link between a protein commonly connected with Alzheimer’s disease to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in first responders.

In a small preliminary study, the researchers found a difference in the level of the protein between first responders who are battling chronic PTSD and those who aren’t battling the condition. The Stony Brook scientists published their work in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Diagnosis, Assessment & Disease Monitoring.

The researchers cautioned that the presence of the markers doesn’t necessarily indicate anything about present or future changes in cognitive function.“We don’t know the specificity of the markers,” Luft explained in an email.

Amyloid is generally considered the earliest marker of Alzheimer’s disease, which includes cognitive decline. Some people, however, have significant amounts of amyloid and don’t develop problems with their thinking. Neurodegenerative diseases without amyloid rarely have severe symptoms, which don’t appear to worsen with time.

“This paper doesn’t look at cognitive symptoms,” Clouston said. “We do have papers looking at cognitive impairment and other memory-based differences. It wasn’t a part of this paper.”

The newest research is part of an ongoing program in which the university follows 11,000 responders who came to the World Trade Center. The study for this paper involved a smaller subset of this population. This type of research can and does have application to other studies of people who have traumatic experiences, the scientists suggest.

Most traumatic experiences are unique to each person, as people who suffer physical and emotional trauma in combat often confront the aftereffects of head injuries. Among the first responder population who survived the attacks on 9/11, most of them “faired pretty well physically,” Clouston said. 

“We didn’t have a lot of head injuries. Understanding PTSD in this crowd is really useful for the literature as a whole because it allows us to focus on the long-term psychiatric fallout of an event without worrying about exposures that are different.”

The scientists had at least some idea of the timing and duration of exposures. This research suggests that it might be helpful to think about the kinds of problems that cognitive impairment can cause, which might involve managing other health-related problems.

Luft added that the population they are studying shows the benefit of immediate care. “One thing for sure is that the care of the first responders has to occur very quickly,” he said. “Now that we know the history, the greatest chance you have in mitigating the effect of this type of trauma is to deal with the problem from the get-go.” 

Sean Clouston with his daughter Quinn at Benner’s Farm in Setaukt. with his daughter Quinn. Photo by Rachel Kidman

First responders have benefited from psychotherapy as well as from various pharmacological treatments. Luft suggested that they might even benefit from having therapists available in the field, where they can receive near instantaneous psychological support.

In addition to the psychological trauma, first responders have had physical effects from their work in the aftermath of the attacks, such as respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, as well as autoimmunity issues.

People have these problems because “of the pro-inflammatory effect of PTSD itself,” said Luft. The researchers believe trauma can affect the immune system and the brain.

According to Clouston, the next step with this work is to replicate it with a larger scale. The experiment was “fairly expensive and untried in this population and novel in general, so we started small,” he explained in an email. The scientists would like to “get a larger range of responders and to examine issues surrounding symptomatology and other possible explanations.”

Clouston has been at Stony Brook for six years. Prior to his arrival on Long Island, he worked on a collaborative project that was shared between University College London and the University of Victoria. 

An expert in aging, he felt like his arrival came at just the right time for the WTC study, as many of the first responders were turning 50. After giving talks about the cognitive and physical effects of aging, he met Luft and the two decided to collaborate within six months of his arrival.

Clouston is focused on whether PTSD caused by the terrorist attacks themselves have caused early brain aging. A self-proclaimed genetics neophyte, he appreciates the opportunity to work with other researchers who have considerably more experience in searching for molecular signatures of trauma.

Clouston said his family has suffered through the trauma of cognitive decline during the aging process. His family’s struggles “definitely bring [the research] home,” reminding him of the “terror that many family members feel when they start noticing problems in their siblings, parents, spouses, etc.”

As for his work on the recent study, he said he is excited about the next steps. “Little is known about the subtypes of amyloid,” he suggested and there’s a “lot more to explore about the role [of this specific type] in the population. I do think it could be really informative about the types of symptoms.”

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