New study says concussions may lead to Alzheimer's


December 28, 2013

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Laws were recently implemented regulating how concussions are treated in healthcare. As a result, people may be viewing the injury a little more closely than before.

While doctors have speculated that concussions may lead to Alzheimer's in the future, a new study published in the journal Neurology has uncovered another link between the disease and mild head injuries.

According to NPR, the study looked at patients in their 70s and 80s who had mild cognitive impairment. About 20 percent of the patients reported that they previously had a concussion that made them lose consciousness or their memory. The researchers found that people who have experienced concussions are more likely to have a build up of plaques in their brains that led to Alzheimer's. Of those studied, people with memory loss were 20 percent more likely to have the plaques in their brains. However, the researchers did not find the plaques in everyone who sustained a concussion, leading them to believe that some people are more prone to long-term effects of concussions than others.

"We need to figure out what's making some people more vulnerable than others," researcher Michelle Mielke told the news source. "Just because you have a head trauma doesn't mean you're going to develop memory problems or significant amyloid levels."

She added that there remains an unexplained reason for the "mechanism" in the brain that increases the risk of Alzheimer's and long-term memory loss following head trauma.

Memory loss and athletes
The study shared results similar to a recent one conducted on hockey and football players at Dartmouth University. For the study, researchers placed sensors in the helmets of the athletes to measure the intensity of the hits, and also had the athletes take cognitive tests at both the beginning and end of the season. After comparing the tests with athletes from non-contact sports, the researchers found that those playing contact sports scored slightly lower. Overall, about 20 percent of the 80 football and ice hockey players scored lower than expected.

MRI scans also showed that contact-sports players had changes in the white matter of their brains - a sign of traumatic head injury. Previous research, such as a study published in June 2013, has shown that abnormalities in the white matter following a mild traumatic brain injury are similar to those found in Alzheimer's patients. In that study, about two-thirds of the patients were athletes who sustained a concussion during competitive play.

"Findings of MTBI bear a striking resemblance to those seen in early Alzheimer's dementia," said Saeed Fakhran, the study's lead author. "Our preliminary findings suggest that the initial traumatic event that caused the concussion acts as a trigger for a sequence of degenerative changes in the brain that results in patient symptoms and that may be potentially prevented."

Long-term impact and prevention
As more people become aware of the long-lasting effects of concussions, the high rate of mild head injuries among athletes is currently a hot topic. The National Football League recently settled a $765 million lawsuit in August 2013 after being sued by thousands of former players who are now battling concussion-related injuries, NFL.com reported.

Meanwhile, Robert Freel, who died in 2012, became the first Major League Baseball player to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease caused by multiple head injuries. According to CNN, symptoms of CTE include memory loss and dementia, and people with CTE tend to have an abnormal build-up of tau, a protein that disables neural pathways in the brain. While CTE typically occurs in football players, Freel's diagnosis has revealed that many more athletes might be at-risk for the disease or other long-term effects of concussions.

While concussions are unpredictable, they can be reduced through various sports injury prevention methods, such as wearing proper head gear and padding, and following sportsmanship rules. Athletes who sustain a concussion during a game should not return to play until they are cleared by a doctor. 


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