How Just One Brain Injury Can Cause Long-Term Brain Problems

Professional football gets underway tonight when the Packers take on the Bears, so get ready for another news cycle of how concussions and head trauma can have significant effects on long-term brain health. That’s the focus of today’s blog as well, because a recent study in the journal Science Translational Medicine shined the spotlight on how just a single traumatic brain injury can have long-term effects on your brain structure.

In that paper, researchers presented brain scan evidence from patients who had suffered head injuries during their youth. The average duration between traumatic brain injury and brain scan was 31 years, and even though these patients reported no additional head injuries throughout their lives, their brain scans showed something both interesting and concerning. Scans showed that many individuals had clear evidence of the expression of a brain protein called tau.

The specific protein is called phosphorylated tau, and it has been shown to develop in the brain as a result of TBI. More notably though, it’s presence is a hallmark symptom of both Alzheimer’s disease and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. New scans have allowed us to spot the development of this tau in living individuals, which can now help us treat depression, dementia and other adverse brain effects.

“It is important to be able to detect tau in the brain during a person’s lifetime, as this in the future might lead to timely treatment to slow down dementia in this vulnerable patient population,” said Nikos Gorgoraptis, Ph.D., neurologist and first author on the paper. “Broadly, a third of TBI participants showed extensive increases in [protein] binding, a third showed more limited increases, and a third showed no abnormality.”

What It All Means

A lot can be interpreted from the findings. For starters, it’s not just the football players who receive repeated blows to the head who are at risk for CTE and dementia, it’s anyone who has suffered a severe head injury in the past. While that may sound scary, the results should also bring optimism in that we are understanding more about the effects of single instance brain trauma and how it can affect us decades down the road.

We should also be optimistic that new technologies are helping us spot these tau proteins and changes in brain patterns in living adults. Up until now, CTE was only able to be confirmed upon death, but now that technology is improving, we can help diagnose and provide care for the living. This can lead to earlier interventions and better outcomes for all involved.

And as the results show, you’re not guaranteed to get dementia if you suffered a head injury in your youth, but it does speak to the larger point that medical help may be your best bet at a full recovery. Don’t take head injuries lightly, and work with a neurosurgeon or similar specialist if you have concerns after a TBI or severe concussion. We’d be happy to help, and you can reach Dr. Chang by calling his office at (651) 430-3800 or by clicking here.

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