Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine say they’ve found a potential new tool for identifying and tracking white matter brain injuries caused in sports concussions. A specialised MRI scan can detect the markers of white matter injuries, which could eventually lead to diagnosing brain injuries much earlier.
Doctors believe the MRI scans will allow them to capture the effects of long-term harm to the brain in athletes who have sustained repetitive head injuries in high contact sports like American football, rugby and boxing. The findings of the study come at a time when governing bodies are struggling to reduce head injuries and improve safety in competitive sports. While the specialised scans won’t be immediately put into use in diagnosing individuals, the researchers are hopeful that this new research tool can be used to highlight links between repetitive head injuries in sport and long-term development of dementia.
The researchers studied 75 retired athletes who had donated their brains for scientific research. The study participants included 67 former American football players and eight other athletes who sustained multiple concussions over the course of their careers. 16 of the athletes were former NFL players and eleven played in semi-pro leagues.
The doctors at Boston University School of Medicine studied at the medical histories of the participants, including scans of the brains that were made when the football players were still living. Researchers determined that 64 percent of the athletes had dementia in the latter stages of life, based on interviews with surviving family members. 71 percent had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), caused by repetitive blows to the head. CTE has been known to progress to dementia in many patients.
Researchers say that the white matter hyperintensities that showed up in post-mortem brain scans revealed evidence of small vessel disease and other indicators of white matter damage. There also appears to be a link between the amount of white matter hyperintensities and high impairment scores on the performance of day-to-day tasks. The more years that players had participated in American football, the greater the volume of white matter hyperintensities. The research also revealed a buildup of tau proteins in the players’ brains, which is another precursor of neurodegenerative disorders.
The long white matter strands that connect different regions of the brain appear to be extremely vulnerable to damage from repetitive blows to the head. Researchers speculate that these injuries could worsen over time as players get older.
One drawback to the study was that all the sports concussion brain scans were carried out when the players were older, and most had already been diagnosed with dementia. Better understanding of the links between sports concussion injuries and dementia will only come through tracking brain scans over the lifetimes of elite rugby and football athletes. Doctors hope to eventually be able to predict the likelihood of future neurodegenerative disorders in athletes.
Results of the study were published in the American Academy of Neurology Journals. Doctors who study sports concussion injuries say the type of scan utilized in the study probably will not be a feasible diagnostic tool in the future. However, the study results are an important advance. Studying athletes over their lifetimes could lead to better understanding of the links between repetitive head injuries and dementia.