Stony Brook University researchers will use a federal grant to...

Stony Brook University researchers will use a federal grant to study possible cognitive decline in Sept. 11, 2001 first responders.   Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Stony Brook University researchers have received a $7.9 million federal grant to assess whether World Trade Center first responders who inhaled toxic dust after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks are at greater risk for cognitive decline and possible early-onset dementia.

The five-year grant from the National Institute on Aging will examine the evidence of brain biomarkers, similar to those with Alzheimer's disease, in more than 1,000 first responders being treated by the university's WTC Health and Wellness Program.

It is the first and only cognitive monitoring study on Ground Zero first responders, university officials said.

"World Trade Center first responders as a whole are experiencing cognitive decline and cognitive dysfunction that is unusual in this age group," said Sean Clouston, an associate professor of family, population and preventive medicine at Stony Brook, who will lead the study. "It's earlier by at least a decade."

Researchers will also investigate how a patient's cognitive decline was affected by both post-traumatic stress disorder, a common ailment among first responders at Ground Zero, and by toxic chemicals floating in lower Manhattan after the terrorist attacks.

For the past five years, Clouston and Dr. Benjamin Luft, director of the Health and Wellness Program and a collaborator on the grant research, performed memory and cognitive tests on 1,000 first responders.

That research, released this past summer, showed that about 15% of 9/11 first responders had signs of cognitive impairment at roughly three times the rate of the general population in their age bracket.

Also, first responders who later developed post-traumatic stress syndrome were more likely to show neurological abnormalities and changes in their blood, similar to Alzheimer’s patients and those with related dementias, according to the research. The average brain "age" of a first responder showing signs of cognitive impairment appeared to be about 7 to 10 years older than the normal population, researchers found.

The new study will continue and expand upon that earlier research, tracking the biomarkers that are thought to predict cognitive dysfunction in those same patients, Clouston said. Blood and urine will be collected from patients, and researchers will conduct brain imaging scans to determine if the cognitive impairments are Alzheimer's or a different disease.

An estimated 500,000 people, including nearly 100,000 first responders, were potentially exposed to environmental contaminants in the aftermath of the attacks. Many were later diagnosed with an array of cancers and respiratory diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, more commonly referred to as COPD, and interstitial lung disease.

"If we are successful we will be able to decide whether or not PTSD and/or [WTC] exposures are associated with Alzheimer's disease or something else," Clouston said. "And we should be able to give a better sense of what the exact biomarkers for monitoring are so if people need to get tested … we should be able to recommend a test."

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