NEW YORK — World Trade Center first responders who were exposed to toxic dust while working at Ground Zero are at a higher risk for developing dementia, studies suggest.
Two studies led by Stony Brook University researchers monitored individuals who responded to Ground Zero on 9/11 and the days following. The observations included people with signs of cognitive impairment (CI) who show neuroradiological abnormalities and changes in their blood similar to what is seen among Alzheimer’s disease patients and those with related dementia.
The studies were supported by the National Institute for Safety and Occupational Health (NIOSH) and the National Institute on Aging.
“The environmental exposures and psychological pressures experienced by responders during 9/11 and its aftermath has had an insidious effect on their health and well-being," said Dr. Benjamin Luft, director of Stony Brook WTC Health and Wellness Program.
“Now nearly 20 years post-911, clinicians who care for these individuals are seeing more patients who are showing signs of cognitive disorders and possible dementia.”
The first study used MRI imaging to assess the brain matter of WTC responders, who are between the age of 45 and 65, and determine if changes in their brain are possibly caused by neurotoxins they were exposed to in Ground Zero.
Findings saw the responders had reduced gray matter and showed evidence their brain “age” is about 10 years older than the normal population.
Imaging also revealed areas of the cortex are atrophied — or reduced in size — in many WTC patients with cognitive impairment, compared to control subjects. Cortical thickness was significantly reduced in 23 out of 34 cortical regions among those with CI, the study said.
“We found a direct correlation between those suffering from cognitive impairment and cortical thickness, indicating a reduction in gray matter of the brain at levels consistent with neurodegenerative disease," said Dr. Sean Clouston, lead author. However, Clouston also noted the patients need to be studied longitudinally to determine whether these changes progress over time.
The second study observed the blood proteins in 181 male first responders with an average age of 55. Researchers found that responders had proteinopathy, or problematic changes in the proteome, consistent with Alzheimer’s and related diseases as well as other neuropsychiatric conditions.
“We believe that neuro-inflammation is a possible mechanism in which responders with PTSD appear to be at a higher risk of developing mild cognitive impairment,” said Dr. Luft, senior author.