18-19 Segment 1: Firefighters and PTSD

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Firefighters have an extremely high rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. One study found that each year firefighters are exposed to approximately thirteen and a half potentially traumatic events, compared to civilians who experience around one to six of the same kind of events in their entire lifetime. Clearly, firefighters’ stress load is more than the average person, but what constitutes a traumatic event and how does one develop PTSD?

Dr. Suzy Gulliver is the Director and Chief of the Warriors Research Institute at Baylor & Scott White Health in Dallas, Texas as well as a Professor of Psychiatry at Texas A&M College of Medicine Health Science Center. She says experts define potentially traumatic events as those outside normal experience that threaten a person’s life or integrity. Although, how people deal with these events can vary dramatically. “For some people, a traumatic event is resolvable in just a normal grief process and for other people, a traumatic event fails to resolve ever,” says Gulliver.

According to Gulliver, most people in high-risk jobs, such as first responder and those in the military, do not develop PTSD. Around 70-80% of firefighters and veterans will not develop the disorder, although veterans have the added difficulty of transitioning to civilian life without the consistent social structure shared by members of a firehouse. A supportive social structure and a strong network of co-workers can act as a ‘buffer’ to PTSD, which is why Gulliver sees firefighting as a good career choice for veterans. Although she cautions multiple traumatic events over time can also cumulate into PTSD.

Symptoms include re-experiencing traumatic events, substantial changes in mood and cognition, significant behavioral shifts, and increased arousal. PTSD can also precipitate sleep problems, drug and alcohol abuse, appearing withdrawn and propensity for being startled. Severe PTSD is typically easy to identify, but borderline forms of the disorder can be extremely varied and harder to diagnose. Some people may have all the symptoms but still function relatively well in society. There is no typical way PTSD is dealt with or displayed.

Dan Robertson, Oakland fire lieutenant and President of the Local 55 of the International Association of Firefighters, says those in his field are uncomfortable sharing the impacts of trauma with fellow first responders because they fear being viewed as weak or unable to be trusted. Robertson says it’s the responsibility of senior firefighters to show it’s safe to talk about traumatic events and admit to having PTSD. If not, those afflicted deal with the disorder on their own and are offered little assistance. Robertson encourages peer counseling for firefighters because many believe anyone outside the profession cannot possibly understand what they’re going through.

Gulliver says research shows peer support can be effective in treating depression. It can likely help those with PTSD as well. Ultimately, the stigma of getting help for PTSD is decreasing. Most importantly, the firefighters participating in support programs say it’s saving lives.


  • Dan Robertson, Oakland CA fire lieutenant and President, Local 55, International Association of Firefighters
  • Dr. Suzy Bird Gulliver, Director and Chief, Warriors Research Institute, Baylor Scott & White Health, Dallas, and Professor of Psychiatry, Texas A&M College of Medicine Health Science Center

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18-19 Segment 2: Autism and Prodigies

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True prodigies are hard to find. Only one in every five to ten million people are labeled a prodigy. A diagnosis of autism, on the other hand, occurs once in every 88 people.

Dr. Joanne Ruthsatz is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at The Ohio State University and the author of The Prodigy’s Cousin: The Family Link Between Autism and Extraordinary Talent. She says her research shows a strong link between prodigies and autism.

Ruthsatz interviewed thirty prodigies and noticed over half of them had a close relative with autism, including several prodigies with multiple autistic family members. She also notes many of the characteristics of prodigies are shared with people with autism. Both are inclined to have an extraordinary recall and repetitive behaviors.

Ruthsatz says prodigies have a unique proclivity for a certain skill. These skills typically include math, music, art, and chess, the same four skills displayed in individuals with autism. This led Ruthsatz to investigate a genetic link between autism and prodigies. She found prodigies and their autistic relatives had a common genetic mutation. Ruthsatz hopes to identify the ‘moderator’ gene. A gene that allows prodigies to have the shared proclivity in one area without the deficits that autistic individuals experience in all other areas. This could ultimately result in a treatment or medicine that could mimic this moderator gene and potentially change the lives of people with autism.

Dr. Jennifer Gerdts, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington and an attending psychologist at the Seattle Children’s Autism Center, says further research needs to be done to back up Ruthsatz conclusions. Since prodigies are so rare, Gerdts says it would be extremely difficult to find a big enough sample size, which would require hundreds of prodigies.

Gerdts agrees that finding the link between autism and prodigies could potentially result in major scientific breakthroughs. Finding a specific mutation or absence of a gene that’s common to both groups could explain the similarities between the prodigies and their autistic relatives. In a best-case scenario, the discovery could result in the development of a medical treatment or cure for autism.



  • Dr. Joanne Ruthsatz, Assistant Professor of Psychology, The Ohio State University and author, The Prodigy’s Cousin: The Family Link Between Autism and Extraordinary Talent
  • Dr. Jennifer Gerdts, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of Washington and attending psychologist, Seattle Children’s Autism Center

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Medical Notes 18-19


Medical Notes this week…

Osteoarthritis, sometimes called “wear and tear arthritis,”  is the biggest cause of disability in the United States. Now a new study suggests that wear and tear may not be the cause. It might be a bad balance of bacteria in the intestines. The study in the journal JCI Insight shows that mice fed a high fat diet developed bacteria in the gut that were dominated by pro-inflammatory types. The mice developed inflammation all over their bodies and rapid deterioration of joints. But when they were given a prebiotic to balance the intestinal bacteria, it reversed the symptoms.

Some experts have suggested drinking coffee to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. But a new study shows that once Alzheimer’s has taken hold…coffee or other caffeinated drinks only make the symptoms worse. The animal study in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology shows that caffeine increases anxiety and fear of new things two hallmarks of Alzheimer’s that are considered strong sources of distress for patients. It took the equivalent of about three cups of coffee per day to produce the effects.

And finally, if you work the night shift, or if your work changes hours often, watch out for that cheeseburger on the way home. a study in the FASEBJ Journal shows that constantly changing schedules make it tough for the body to process fats without producing much higher than normal levels of inflammation.

And that’s Medical Notes this week.

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