The Hidden Brain Syndrome Facing Firefighters

The Hidden Brain Syndrome Facing Firefighters

Firefighters routinely put themselves in harm’s way by battling urban blazes and wildfires. But the flames aren’t the only danger they face. Breathing in carbon monoxide and other toxins, repeated exposure to emotional trauma, and the possibility of head injuries put them at increased risk of unhealthy brain function.

Brain imaging studies on a group of 50 of firefighters performed at Amen Clinics show troubling findings:

  • 67% show evidence of head trauma
  • 63% show evidence of moderate toxicity
  • 45% show evidence of chronic emotional trauma
  • 40% show evidence of ADHD

All of these brain issues increase the likelihood of mental, behavioral, and cognitive problems, but few firefighters are aware of this.

How Head Injuries Cause Lasting Harm

Falling off the ladder, structure collapse, traffic collisions involving emergency vehicles—firefighters are at risk for head trauma. It is estimated that up to 15% of all firefighter injuries are head injuries. That amounts to over 4,000 head injuries a year, and the number could actually be much higher since many first responders may not think their injury is significant enough to report.

But concussions and traumatic brain injuries (TBIs)—even if they don’t cause you to lose consciousness—can lead to problems in the following weeks, months, and years. Research shows that head trauma increases the risk of depression, anxiety and panic disorders, ADD/ADHD, drug and alcohol abuse, psychosis, chronic emotional trauma and stress, borderline and antisocial personality disorders, dementia, and suicide. But since psychiatrists rarely look at the organ they treat, first responders may not be aware that this is the root cause of their issues.

When Toxins Attack the Brain

Firefighters can be exposed to many toxins, including carbon monoxide, benzene, asbestos, and diesel exhaust. Statistics from a 2018 report from the National Fire Protection Association show that there were an estimated 44,530 exposures to hazardous conditions, such as radioactive materials, chemicals, and fumes.

There is growing concern that exposure to such chemicals is increasing rates of cancer among first responders. But this exposure poses another dangerous threat that isn’t getting enough attention—toxic brain.

The brain is the most metabolically active organ in the human body. As such, it is extremely vulnerable to damage from toxins, and having a toxic brain is linked to depression, ADD/ADHD, learning problems, memory problems, brain fog, autism, temper outbursts, psychotic behavior, and suicide.

On brain SPECT scans, which measure blood flow and activity in the brain, a toxic brain looks like a “Swiss cheese” brain that is full of holes. The “holes” reflect areas with low blood flow and are a sign of an unhealthy brain. It looks like their brains have been poisoned.

How Exposure to Trauma Affects the Brain

First responders witness some horrific incidents, but “they’re actually trained to stuff it, to push it down,” according to Dr. Nancy Bohl-Penrod, a psychotherapist and trainer to first responders.  In an episode of The Brain Warrior’s Way podcast, Bohl-Penrod said their training dictates, “Don’t let it bother you. Get over it as quickly as you can, because you’re going to go on another call.” In response to the repeated exposure to trauma, she’s seen firefighters develop mild depression, become more short-fused, turn to alcohol, and withdraw from their families.

These issues are related to abnormal activity in the brain. Brain imaging scans show that chronic exposure to trauma is associated with overactivity in the emotional brain, which is known as the limbic system. When there is too much activity in this brain region, it’s linked to depression, anger, and social isolation. People may also drink more because alcohol calms the overactivity.

A Look at Firefighter Steven’s Brain

At age 32, Steven was a firefighter who was suffering from depression, brain fog, and symptoms of unrelenting trauma. During his evaluation, Steven asked, “How can I deal with the trauma? I wish I could forget what my eyes have seen, from children being burned to losing whole families in car crashes and fires.”

Steven’s SPECT Scan Before Treatment: The “holes” in this scan are indicative of low blood flow and are a sign of exposure to toxins.

Steven’s SPECT Scan After Treatment: This scan shows healthier overall blood flow.


Steven’s brain scan showed that his emotional brain—the limbic system—was working way too hard, plus he also had evidence of toxic exposure, likely from breathing carbon monoxide and the poisonous chemicals released from burning furniture. These biological problems in his brain were the root cause of the mental and cognitive issues that plagued him.

Why Firefighters Don’t Seek Help

Studies show that first responders, such as firefighters, are at an elevated risk of trauma, depression, heavy drinking, and suicide. Unfortunately, research shows that they are less likely to seek help because of the stigma associated with having a mental illness, fearing they will be labeled as weak or unfit for duty. Their professions have convinced them that they are supposed to be superheroes, so they just suck it up. Because of this, they continue to suffer in silence.

How a Brain-Based Approach to Treatment Changes Everything

Brain imaging shows that psychiatric issues have a biological basis. In Steven’s case, seeing his scan helped him understand that his “mental health” problems were really “brain health” problems related to toxic exposure and trauma. Rather than thinking his issues were due to some character flaw or weakness, he now viewed them as medical, not moral. This motivated him to get serious about improving his brain health. Within 6 months of following a program designed to optimize his brain, help him deal with trauma, and enhance his body’s ability to flush out toxins, he felt much better and his brain was healthier.

There is no need to suffer in silence. At Amen Clinics, we have helped hundreds of firefighters and other first responders overcome the psychiatric symptoms associated with an unhealthy brain. Whether you’re experiencing depression, anxiety, brain fog, or other symptoms, we offer brain-based treatment programs that use the least toxic, most effective solutions tailored to your needs.

Call 888-288-9834 to speak with a specialist today or schedule a visit online.



  1. Hello reading your article exposed firefighters the hidden brain syndrome . Interesting how exposure to trauma death , toxins from structural fires breathing in floating unburned particulates after a fire has short turn affects ,long turn effects . Exposure to chemicals wild land fires seeing such loss of families . I am a retired firefighter this my be why I am depressed have some off the symptoms that I do mention in this article . I retired over 20 years ago having given firefighting 28 years of service. Respectfully Daniel Ames

    Comment by Daniel Ames — December 13, 2019 @ 6:11 AM

  2. Do you have any info on how law enforcement officers might be affected? Perhaps not so much chem/tox exposure, but surely the emotional and the stress of knowing harm could come at any time coupled with low income…?

    Comment by drmom — December 13, 2019 @ 8:21 AM

  3. Hi drmom-
    You can find my book “The Rite of Return: Coming Back From Duty-Induced PTSD” on Amazon. This book features some SPECT images that came out of a joint study Daniel and I conducted on 6 police officers with post shooting PTSD (there’s also a Firefighter Medic SPECT image included as well). It doesn’t deal with financial issues or “the normal types of life stressors.” That said those can become magnified when an injury of PTSD occurs.

    Comment by Karen Lansing — December 13, 2019 @ 10:57 AM

  4. Having been a former police officer (NYPD) who worked at the WTC on 9-11 and switched over to the FDNY, this study makes lots of sense. Lots of friends and former colleagues from PD and FD are also dealing with the symptoms as mentioned in this article, including myself. Unfortunately, there’s still a stigma of people struggle with these mental health issues. Last year, I went for a SPECT scan, after years of severe anxiety and depression and was emotional after hearing my diagnosis. I was prescribed a series of supplements, and feel the best I have in many years. I still deal with PTSD, anxiety and depression but life is better than before.

    Comment by Kenny — December 13, 2019 @ 5:16 PM

  5. Responders are systematically exposed to RF-EMF (microwave) radiation from mobile masts / cell towers and TETRA networks placed on their stations (and now 5G is being tested in ambulances). RF-EMR is known to open the blood-brain-barrier, making exposures to toxic chemicals even more likely to reach the brain. It is also known to be associated with memory and cognitive impairment, affect behaviour and temper, ADHD, insomnia and more, compounding these effects from the emotional trauma. Please know that Matrix Reimprinting using EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) is an effective, gentle healing technique with a low risk of retraumatising. EFT has been clinically proved to reduce PTSD, as has meditation. Help is out there. With exposure to mobile and wireless radiation, Reduce Exposure, Raise Resilience. Campaign to remove antennas from fire/police stations/hospitals, use flight mode on personal devices when you can and do everything you can to protect your sleep especially. I love the concept of Brain Health rather than Mental Health. Words have power. There should be no stigma.

    Comment by Rebecca — December 14, 2019 @ 1:38 AM

  6. It’s sad that we don’t know what we don’t know and then why we act/feel the way we do. Keep searching for healing. Perhaps your best life is in front of you! Best

    Comment by Donna — December 14, 2019 @ 3:48 AM

  7. A small but very important point dealing with cops and firefighters: Call it BRAIN HEALTH rather than Mental Health when devising programs to help these men and women.

    Comment by Maria — December 14, 2019 @ 5:47 AM

  8. I retired from public safety 6 years ago after having four titles of Firefighter, Paramedic, Peace Officer & Investigator.

    Law Enforcement Officers certainly suffer just because of the position. Citizens love when Fire & EMS arrive. Much different if police show up. People associate fire/EMS with good, helping others. The perception with police is negative with fear of arrest, etc…not so good.

    Comment by Tim Hinkle — December 18, 2019 @ 8:44 PM

  9. I have been a public safety officer (paramedic, firefighter and police officer) for 27 years in the Green Bay Area. I have seen the worst of what humanity can offer in several different capacities in a community I have lived in my entire life. I have responded to everything from my friends committing suicide, to officers children killed in crashes, to having to try to save the life of one of my fellow officers who had been struck by a drunk driver while directing traffic on the highway. Like putting files in a file cabinet, I just kept dealing with the “now” and put each of those incidents in a place I didn’t have to deal with them. I had to, in order to move on to the next call.
    I have had severe bouts of anxiety, depression, flashbacks and insomnia for many years and suffered in silence. My wife and doctor finally convinced me to seek help. I did and my department denied my FMLA rights and eventually fired me for it and deprived me of some of my retirement benefits. Despite ongoing counseling, psychotherapy, medications, brain spotting, and cranial electro therapy stimulation they claim I am making it up or deny it was caused by my career choice. Workers comp stated, “that’s what I signed up for”. The stigma is real and still there. We need to do more to help our fellow brothers and sisters. I wish I would have realized how I can clean out your file cabinet as you move through you move through your career. My file cabinet flew open and left me hopeless and almost killed me.

    Comment by Scott Schermitzler — January 5, 2020 @ 6:22 AM

  10. Retired from the Federal Fire service in 2005, following 35 years of service, 10 USFS & 25 USN. Since the clinic completed 2 scans and 2 reports for me in 2010 I have experienced improvements in Brain Function. I also continue to experience many of the phenomena mentioned in the article. In October I was hospitalized due to high BP, 265/?? forgot Diastolic number. Current BP 140/85. While all of my Brain Meds were discontinued due to concerns over possible adverse effects, the actual cause was Diagnosed as a hereditary condition, Primary Aldosteronism. My Father and son both experienced Primary Aldosteronism.
    I am now trying to reestablish a Brain Health Treatment program including Medications, Adderall and Gabapentin.
    I am not obsessing over the issue at all. I simply would like to experience the comfortable Brain Health I had prior to October 2019.
    I carried BC/BS high option into retirement for full benefits, rather than sign up for the lower coverage via Medicare Advantage.
    Your thoughts please on how best to proceed?

    Thank You,
    Lowell J Boardman

    Comment by — February 20, 2020 @ 5:33 PM

  11. Hello Lowell, thank you for reaching out and sharing with us. We’d be happy to contact you directly to explore options and offer resources.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — February 21, 2020 @ 9:44 AM

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