Survivors Describe a New Condition: 'Fire Brain'

After wildfires, some face a double-whammy of trauma and cognitive impairments from smoke
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 27, 2023 12:20 PM CDT
Survivors Describe a New Condition: 'Fire Brain'
People watch as smoke and flames fill the air from raging wildfires on Front Street in downtown Lahaina, Maui on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023.   (Alan Dickar via AP)

The first order of business in a wildfire, of course, is to survive the wildfire. But more and more, researchers are seeing evidence of cognitive impairment in such survivors after they were exposed to wildfire smoke, reports the Washington Post. And that's in addition to the very real possibility of post-traumatic stress from having gone through such a harrowing ordeal. Survivors interviewed by the newspaper refer to the condition as "fire brain," a mishmash of symptoms that encompass everything from brain fog to thoughts of self-harm. It's not merely anecdotal, however. "Those who do survive also may be vulnerable to both long- and short-term effects on the brain caused by this exposure," says Marc Weisskopf of Harvard's TH Chan School of Public Health.

The problem revolves around the microscopic particles people inhale through wildfire smoke, and research there is difficult because each fire is different. "The issue with wildfires is that it's all over the map in terms of what's being burned," Lisa Miller, an immunologist at the University of California Davis, tells National Geographic. "It's a chemical mess." The National Geographic story digs into broader health problems linked to wildfires, posing the question of whether even short-term exposure to intense wildfire smoke can lead to lasting problems. The sobering answer: "Though it's a relatively young area of scientific investigation, the answer appears to be yes."

Earlier this year, researchers at the University of San Diego published a study about survivors of the 2018 Camp Fire in California, finding that those who were directly exposed had lingering cognitive effects. "We actually wanted to see if there are any objective cognitive and brain function changes that are seen in individuals who are exposed to the fires," co-author Jyoit Mishra tells the Hill. "And we find that indeed, there are specific cognitive differences relative to a control population that was never exposed to the fires." Those differences included increased distractibility and higher frontal-lobe activity, suggesting they had to work harder to process new information. (More wildfires stories.)

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