issue Summer 2022

Treating 9/11 First Responders: Can Genetics Predict Severity of PTSD?

By Monika Waszczuk, PhD

Last September, people across the United States and the world commemorated the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York. Thousands of people died that day, while survivors of the attacks, including those who worked in rescue, recovery and cleanup operations, were exposed to psychological trauma and severe toxins from the dust cloud. Many 9/11 responders have since developed respiratory diseases, cancers, mental health problems and neurodegenerative disorders as a result of these toxic exposures. In response, the WTC Health Program has been established to provide screening and treatment to individuals affected by the 9/11 attacks.

Many WTC responders have generously agreed to take part in research studies, and scientists are analyzing the health data generated from the medical records. A better understanding of how traumatic and occupational exposures impact health in the long term can help reduce burden and improve treatment in first responders. Such insights may help other occupational groups, including firefighters and first responders.

I had a great opportunity to contribute to this research program, which I continue at RFU. My main interest is if genetics — the blueprint of As and Ts, Gs and Cs in our DNA code — can help predict future health. Using advanced computer models, we can add together the influence of the hundreds, even thousands, of DNA variants associated with a given disease into what is called a “polygenic score.”

I have co-led a project that has obtained polygenic scores from WTC responders. In a published work, my collaborators and I found that genetic differences between responders predicted the severity and the progression of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This suggests that, in the future, genetics may help identify people at a higher risk for PTSD and other negative mental health outcomes following trauma exposure. Such individuals might benefit from more resilience training and frequent screenings.

“In the future, genetics may help identify people at a higher risk for PTSD and other negative mental health outcomes following trauma exposure.”

My collaborators and I are building on this finding and the generated genetic resource in three recently funded studies on WTC responders. First, we investigate the combined impact of polygenic scores, severity of trauma exposure and mental health on cognitive decline. Second, because we know that trauma exposure and PTSD worsen chronic kidney disease, we investigate if genetics play a role in this association. Finally, emerging evidence suggests that genetic differences between people may contribute to the severity of COVID-19 symptoms. We investigate the contribution of polygenic scores to COVID disease severity and negative post-COVID outcomes.

The results of this study will help better understand the impact of COVID on WTC responders, identify sub-populations at increased risk of negative outcomes and inform targeted interventions to manage these risks.

Dr. Monika Waszczuk is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at RFU. Her program of research uses molecular genetic methods to predict severity and long-term course of mental and physical health conditions across the lifespan. Dr. Waszczuk also studies the interplay between genetics and other established clinical risk factors, such as trauma exposures, maladaptive behaviors and low social support.

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