19 years ago, on September 11, 2001, two planes hijacked by members of the Al-Qaeda terrorist group flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York. In addition to the 2,753 victims, experts have identified, over the years, tens of thousands of people directly or indirectly exposed to the dust caused by the collapse of the towers, and suffering from lung problems, respiratory deficiency, cardiovascular disease or cancers.

According to two studies carried out by Stony Brook University and presented virtually during the international conference of the Alzheimer’s Association on Tuesday, July 28, the first people having intervened on the WTC site after attacks have an increased risk of developing dementia.

“The environmental exposures and psychological pressures experienced by people responding to 9/11 and its aftermath have had an insidious effect on their health and well-being,” says Benjamin Luft, director of the health and wellness program at Stony Brook.

“Today, almost 20 years after September 11, clinicians caring for these people are seeing more and more patients with signs of cognitive impairment and possible dementia. The results of our new studies provide for the first time data that supports the idea that this population of patients with dementia not only has psychological problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but that ‘she may be at high risk for neurodegenerative disorders, a possibility that must be investigated immediately and on an ongoing basis.”

In the first study, researchers used MRI imaging to assess brain matter from former World Trade Center responders, without symptoms of cognitive impairment and aged 45 to 65. They measured the cerebral cortex, the area of the brain responsible for cognition. The results showed cortical area atrophy in 23 of 34 cortical regions, including the frontal, temporal and occipital lobes in a majority of study participants. “We found a direct correlation between people with cognitive impairment and cortical thickness, indicating a reduction in brain gray matter to levels compatible with neurodegenerative disease,” says Sean Clouston, lead author of the work.

According to him, the level of reduction in cortical thickness in many volunteers is “a possible indicator of early stage dementia with a possible early onset of dementia which may occur in some of these individuals in their forties.”

However, he specifies that these patients should be the subject of a longitudinal study to determine whether these changes evolve over time. Further imaging and related brain research is also needed to determine the cause (s) of brain atrophy in people who have seen the World Trade Center site.

The second study, soon to be published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, looked at 181 workers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and mild cognitive impairment. A blood test of 276 proteins showed in the volunteers proteinopathy, that is, an accumulation of blood proteins characteristic of certain neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

“We believe that neuroinflammation is a possible mechanism in which respondents with PTSD appear to have a higher risk of developing mild cognitive impairment,” said Benjamin Luft, lead author. We hope that our unique analysis of proteins associated with cognitive impairment diseases in this population is one more way to identify their risk based on changes in their bodies likely due to their exposure. “

Joseph Mandell

Mandell is currently working towards a medical degree from the University of Central Florida. His main passions include kayaking, playing soccer and tasting good food. He covers mostly science, health and environmental stories for the Scientific Origin.