World Trade Center first responders with PTSD and cognitive impairment at high-risk for developing dementia

Priyanshi Patel ’22

Figure 1: The rubble of WTC and the resulting perilous environment have lifelong impacts on first responders and put them at higher risk for dementia.

According to two studies presented by Stony Brook University at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, World Trade Center (WTC) first responders with signs of cognitive impairment (CI) exhibited neurological abnormalities and anomalies in their blood, which are normally attributed to Alzheimer’s disease patients. The first study investigated MRI results of WTC responders that showed significant gray matter atrophy compared to individuals of the general population. The second study demonstrated that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mild CI in WTC responders were indicative of protein changes in blood, consistent with Alzheimer’s and other dementia patients. The goal of the two studies was to investigate whether the neurotoxins from Ground Zero caused WTC first responders to develop CI in their midlife. 

Benjamin Luft, MD, of the Stony Brook WTC Health and Wellness Program, claims clinicians are seeing more patients with signs of cognitive disorders as a result of the psychological strain experienced as WTC responders. This study was the first to use MRI imaging to examine the brain matter and conclude that patients with CI not only have PTSD, but are also at high-risk for neurodegenerative disorders. The researchers measured the brain cortical thickness, a measure of atrophy, and found that their brain “age” is about 10 years older than the normal population. Sean Clouston, PhD, of Stony Brook University Medicine noted that cognitive decline as a result of loss of gray matter is concerning due to the direct correlation found between those with CI and cortical thickness, suggesting that the reduction of gray matter is consistent with neurodegenerative disease. 

The second study analyzed 276 proteins indicative of neurological diseases in the blood of 181 WTC male responders. Individuals with PTSD and mild CI were studied, as these two diseases are common among 911 responders. Researchers found that the WTC responders with mild CI also had proteinopathy, consistent with Alzheimer’s. Dr. Luft highlighted that responders with PTSD were at a higher risk of developing mild CI.  

These unique studies of MRI imaging and analyses of proteins associated with CI-related diseases are an additional way of identifying WTC responders’ risk of dementia by noting changes in their bodies. It is imperative to study these patients longitudinally, tracking changes over time. Additional imaging would also be helpful in determining the cause(s) of brain atrophy in WTC responders. 

Works Cited: 

  1. WTC responders at risk for dementia, studies show. Stony Brook University News, (2020).
  2. Image retrieved from:

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