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Several retired American Football stars have ended up with chronic traumatic encephalophy (CTE), previously known as dementia pugilistica. It’s similar to Alzheimer’s disease in that the brain ends up with neurofibrillary tangles.

Science Translational Medicine Cover May 16CTE has also been seen in soldiers who have experienced blast induced traumatic brain injury (bTBI) from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). I previously wrote on this blog about how nanotechnology may revolutionize the detection of TBI using a nanomaterial that changes color.

Research published in the May 16, 2012 issue of Science Translational Magazine by Lee Goldstein and colleagues from the Molecular Aging and Development Laboratory at Boston University & other institutions, compared CTE neuropathology in blast-exposed military veterans and athletes with repetitive concussion injury.

For the first time they have shown similarities in what happens to the brains of soldiers when they are blown up and to athletes in sports that have repeated head impacts.

The reseachers looked at 8 post-mortem brains, 4 military veterans aged 22 to 45 with a history of blast exposure were compared to 4 athletes aged 17 to 27 who were either American Football players or, in one case, a wrestler. Despite the small sample size, the results showed similar brain trauma in the two groups:

“the effects of blast exposure, concussive injury, and mixed trauma (blast exposure and concussive injury) were indistinguishable.”

It is worth noting that the brain neuropathysiology seen was different from that seen with Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

The researchers went on to develop a mouse model that could be used to investigate the link between blast exposure, brain neuropathology and behavior.  I encourage you to read the STM paper for full details on this.

Some of the key findings of their mouse experiments were:

  • Blast exposure induces traumatic head acceleration in a blast neurotrauma mouse model
  • Single-blast exposure persistently impairs axonal conduction and long-term potentiation of activity-dependent synaptic transmission in the hippocampus
  • Single-blast exposure induces long-term behavioural deficits that are prevented by head immobilization during blast exposure.

The authors conclude that their results “provide compelling evidence linking blast exposure to long-lasting brain injury.”

What this research suggests to me is:

  • An ongoing need to design safer head protection for athletes and soldiers
  • The need to monitor and detect traumatic brain injury (I wrote last year about how nanomaterials were being developed to monitor blast exposure)
  • Need to identify those genetic factors (e.g. carrying the APOE e4 allele leads to a high risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease) that may lead to a heightened risk of developing dementia or CTE.

The paper by Goldstein and colleagues in STM is well worth reading if you have an interest in this area and the debate about the safety of young people in high-contact sports.


ResearchBlogging.orgGoldstein, L., Fisher, A., Tagge, C., Zhang, X., Velisek, L., Sullivan, J., Upreti, C., Kracht, J., Ericsson, M., Wojnarowicz, M., Goletiani, C., Maglakelidze, G., Casey, N., Moncaster, J., Minaeva, O., Moir, R., Nowinski, C., Stern, R., Cantu, R., Geiling, J., Blusztajn, J., Wolozin, B., Ikezu, T., Stein, T., Budson, A., Kowall, N., Chargin, D., Sharon, A., Saman, S., Hall, G., Moss, W., Cleveland, R., Tanzi, R., Stanton, P., & McKee, A. (2012). Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Blast-Exposed Military Veterans and a Blast Neurotrauma Mouse Model Science Translational Medicine, 4 (134), 134-134 DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3003716

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7 Responses to “Repetitive brain injury from high impact sports generates similar pathophysiology to traumatic brain injury in soldiers blown up by IEDs”

  1. Marymezzo

    I knew American football was dangerous, but this is dreadful. Perhaps advances in protecting soldiers’ heads can be used to help the footballers as well.

    • maverickny

      Very much hoping so, Mary. You know, watching the slow motion replays of big hits in American Football can be rather disturbing at times. It’s sad that so many concussions occur during the course of one season, never mind cumulatively over the course of a career…

  2. Suzan St Maur

    The implications of high impact to the head are very worrying in relation to many sports. I recall an incident in the UK when a well-known TV presenter, Richard Hammond, crashed a dragster car at very high speed** and appeared to recover well from the brain injury received. However one cannot help but wonder if there are long-term effects that will emerge in later life – especially in sports where there are repeated impacts to the head over months and years. Let’s hope that Nanotechnology will help find solutions.


    • maverickny

      Yikes, Suze, that was a pretty nasty accident the guy experienced, he was lucky to be alive! It is the repeated trauma to the head that can be very worrying in sports, I agree.

  3. Elaine

    Great post – I watched a documentary recently about headgear used specifically in American Football, it related to their use in high school and university teams and how many were potentially reconditioned without reaching the necessary level of protection – scary when you think how many youngsters play. If the longterm effects are possibly this devastating then it certainly needs investigation and more attention to the development of appropriate headgear.

    • maverickny

      Thanks for stopping by, Elaine. Yeah, it’s kinda scary isn’t it? Sometimes I wonder if the helmets are actually used as a weapon rather than as protection with kids. Their play can be pretty undisciplined sometimes!

  4. Angela Boothroyd

    Very interesting post, Sally. There were some photos doing the rounds recently of the effects on people’s faces at the moment they were punched hard on the head / face – goodness only knows what stress the brain was undergoing at that moment. Boxers must be facing enormous risks of brain injury when participating in their sport.

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