One of the longstanding primary goals of the research program at Stony Brook WTC Wellness is understanding the ecology of 9/11 illnesses. As of early 2015, WTC Health Program membership totaled more than 70,000 individuals (more than ten percent of which belongs to Stony Brook WTC Wellness). The sheer size of this cohort offers researchers an extraordinary opportunity to examine the effects of a shared exposure on a population. This has significant implications not only for WTC responders and survivors, but for those involved in other major disasters and even warzones.
Through collaborations with renowned researchers at SUNY Stony Brook, Columbia University, Bellevue, and other institutions, the multidisciplinary research program at Stony Brook WTC Wellness has secured millions in funding for a variety of groundbreaking studies. Dr. Benjamin Luft, Director and Principal Investigator, has collaborated with renowned experts such as Evelyn Bromet, PhD, who was integral to the creation and perpetuation of our research. With experts spanning the fields of epidemiology, psychiatry, clinical psychology, biology, genetics, and medicine, our work to date has uncovered important links between 9/11-related traumas, such as the meaningful relationship between PTSD and respiratory illness. Additional findings underline the fact that responders with conditions resulting from WTC exposures (such as sinusitis, various lung diseases, and GERD) may not respond as well to typical treatments. These discoveries have led to further investigations into epigenetics (where we are currently exploring differences in gene expression related to immune functioning), the significance of comorbid psychological and physical traumas, and strategies to increase wellness behaviors in our patients. Through the integration of cognitive behavioral therapy programs, we focus on promoting lifestyle changes that will positively impact disease trajectories and help our patients lead healthier lives. The combination of our clinical discoveries and related research efforts has helped us develop an ever-evolving standard of care for our patients.
A Seminal Investigation into Responder Health: the Burden of Mental-Physical Comorbidity
From the WTC Program’s first iteration as a monitoring program (established by the CDC in 2002), records revealed a significant comorbidity of lower respiratory symptoms, PTSD, asthma attacks, and GERD amongst monitoring participants. This evidence was consistent with documented associations between physical and mental symptoms, but there was little existing research looking into comorbidity of such symptoms. Our center’s research team embarked on a mission to discover how comorbidity of illnesses affects responders’ quality of life; what mechanisms are at fault; and how best to coordinate medical and psychiatric treatment.
Ultimately, this study documented not only the association between mental and physical symptoms, but definitively determined comorbidity between them, as well as its impact on various elements of the responder’s life and medical care. Discovering this relationship heralded a new era of care not only for our responders, but for any person with comorbid illnesses. This study is truly the nucleus of our subsequent ongoing inquiries into the impact of WTC-related illness as well those exploring the most effective types of medical care and intervention strategies. We’re continuing to explore this link through epigenetic and genetic studies. Implementing an ecological model has helped reorganize our thinking about 9/11 health conditions, including what questions we attempt to answer through our research.