Researchers eye Alzheimer’s link in 9/11 responders

Still suffering: Post-traumatic stress from ground zero of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks may be causing first responders to suffer premature cognitive decline.

Biomarkers similar to those found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients are appearing in the brains of first responders to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Stony Brook University researchers are hot on their trail.

Funded by a fresh $7.9 million grant from the National Institute of Health’s National Institute on Aging, a collaborative SBU research team – combining sociologists, positron emission tomography experts and others – is embarking on what the university bills as “the first and only current cognitive-monitoring study of [World Trade Center] responders.”

The five-year award will cover a deep dive into the cognitive states of more than 1,000 first responders, all of whom responded to Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, or soon thereafter, and were subsequently treated by SBU’s WTC Health and Wellness Program, a comprehensive assortment of healthcare services for “9/11-related illnesses” ranging from physical injuries and cancers to aerodigestive disorders and mental health issues.

Cognitive decline, including early dementia, in the WTC-responder community “continues to be a concern among caregivers,” according to SBU, which notes recent research by university investigators revealing physical evidence of brain abnormalities in this patient population “consistent with cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer’s.”

Sean Clouston: PTSD, predictable.

Led by Sean Clouston, an associate professor in the Renaissance School of Medicine’s Department of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine, the NIH-funded study will combine “blood-based biomarker profiling” and PET brain scans to investigate the relationship of WTC ground-zero exposure to cognitive decline, with a particular focus on first responders diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

While “the mechanisms of action for this association are not fully clear,” researchers do see PTSD as a useful predictor of “increased risk of cognitive and physical symptoms consistent with preclinical Alzheimer’s disease,” according to Clouston, a core faculty member of Stony Brook Medicine’s Program in Public Health.

In an earlier pilot study, the researcher and his colleagues found that WTC responders have increased plasma neurofilament-light and plasma tau biomarkers; they also found a strong association between PTSD and changes in certain amino acid levels – all good indicators of possible dementia, or pre-clinical dementia.

The idea now, according to Clouston, is to determine what might happen next for patients found to have these telltale biomarkers.

“Our study seeks to examine the extent to which PTSD might trigger an Alzheimer’s disease neuropathological cascade in these patients,” the scientist said.