Researchers May Have Found A Way To Detect Brain Damage

First Posted: Dec 02, 2016 03:10 AM EST

Players of the National Football League (NFL) are those that are prone to brain injuries because of the sports' nature. It is often diagnosed later which leads to a bad prognosis. However, researchers claim that they have discovered a new way to detect and track brain injury related to repeated concussion in NFL players.

According to Health Day, brain imaging scans in 14 current or former NFL players showed elevated levels of a protein related to the body's immune response to brain injury, reported the study's lead researcher Dr. Jennifer Coughlin, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

She also said that the NFL players, who had gone an average of seven years since their last self-reported concussion, showed elevated levels of the protein in eight of 12 brain regions examined. Coughlin and her colleagues claim that if the new test proves to be a success, it could be a breakthrough for tracking the effects of repeated concussions on the human brain.

"We anticipate this technology is going to be useful in studying younger players and very carefully tracking how many concussions they've had related to playing, and how that relates to the signal of brain injury revealed in our scans," she said.

Previous reports revealed that repeated concussions have been connected to memory loss and mood disorders in professional football players. Autopsies have also revealed extensive brain damage in the number of former players who have died, many of whom exhibited erratic behavior prior to their deaths, which is medically known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

In the early stages of the research, an autopsy was the only way for the researchers to determine brain damage. However, Coughlin explained that just recently, researchers have tried to keep track of some of the changes in the white matter of living NFL players using a technology that estimates water movement in brain tissue, reported UPI Health.

Coughlin and her colleagues used positron emission tomography (PET) scans instead to track changes in a particular protein that can be regularly seen existing in low levels in the brain but increases when the brain's immune cells respond to injury.

For the research, PET scans were done on 14 NFL players and 16 non-players from a matched "control" group to see the differences in protein levels between the two groups. Although the study is not definitive, the scans revealed higher levels of the protein in the brains of NFL players, suggesting ongoing inflammation in response to injury.

However, researchers revealed that the scans showed limited white matter changes in NFL players' brains compared to the non-players, and the athletes performed the same as the control group on neuropsychological tests.

"We are seeing this signal from this protein related to brain injury and repair in young players who do not yet have memory deficits," said Coughlin. She added that, in the future, these scans "could conceivably be used to see who is primed for future neuropsychiatric problems."

Aside from detecting and tracking potential brain injury, the scans also could be used to test future treatments to help players dealing with the effects of repeated concussions, Coughlin said.

It is also important to mention that Jonathan Godbout, an associate professor of neuroscience at Ohio State University's Center for Brain and Spinal Cord Repair, explained that if verified as accurate, these scans will be useful far beyond sports-related concussions.

The scans also could track brain injury related to trauma from car crashes, for example, and possibly even damage occurring in a pre-Alzheimer's disease patient, Godbout said.

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