For many years, moderate-to-traumatic brain injury has been linked to debilitating conditions such as late-onset Alzheimer’s, but new research out of Boston University suggests that even mild traumatic injury—commonly known as a concussion—could contribute to an increase in Alzheimer’s. And it might only take one concussion.
Concussions Combine with Genetic Factors for Increased Alzheimer’s Risk
The study, which was done by researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and published in the journal Brain, suggested that when individuals who were at genetic risk for Alzheimer’s had a concussion, it was followed with Alzheimer’s-related brain atrophy and cognitive decline. The Alzheimer’s concussion link was not found for study participants who were not genetically predisposed to the disease.
“We found that having a concussion was associated with lower cortical thickness in brain regions that are the first to be affected in Alzheimer’s disease,” said corresponding author Jasmeet Hayes, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at BUSM and research psychologist at the National Center for PTSD, VA Boston Healthcare System. “Our results suggest that when combined with genetic factors, concussions may be associated with accelerated cortical thickness and memory decline in Alzheimer’s disease-relevant areas.”
This discovery sheds new light on the way researchers look at brain injuries and adds further importance to the prevention and monitoring of concussions.
Age of Study Participants Indicates Early Alzheimer’s Detection is Possible
In the BUSM study, researchers looked at 160 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans; within the group were veterans who had suffered one or more concussions and veterans who had never had a concussion. The average age of the participants was 32-years-old, a relatively young age to show signs of mental decline.
Despite the younger age of the study participants, BUSM researchers were still able to note memory decline, leading them to believe that the effects of concussion on brain health can be noted even early in a lifetime.
These findings emphasize the importance of noting any occurrences of concussion (even concussions that sufferers recover quickly from) as one instance—and certainly multiple instances—could translate into long term effects, including the acceleration of Alzheimer’s.
Findings Add to Concerning Data on Brain Injury
Though concussions are considered the mildest of brain trauma injuries, they are not without risks and are especially dangerous when they occur frequently, as is often the case with athletes.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain that is linked to a history of repetitive brain trauma and results in brain cells dying off even after the brain trauma is over. It can only be confirmed through brain tissue analysis and, as such, is identified after death. After finding that the disease appeared to be common in professional football players, 91 former National Football League (NFL) players donated their brains to be studied following their deaths. Of those 91 players, 87 were ultimately diagnosed with CTE.
The Boston University School of Medicine study, however, is the first to find an Alzheimer’s concussion link that could be detected after just one concussion. In light of their findings, the authors are hoping to build upon their research and identify concussion-related mechanisms that accelerate brain-related diseases like Alzheimer’s and CTE.
Researchers Stress Importance of Noting Concussion Incidents
For now, the authors of the BUSM study are saying that the most important thing for individuals to do is to make a careful note of each and any concussion they experience. It’s advice that’s in keeping with new concussion protocols in both the NFL and National Hockey League (NHL).
In the new NFL concussion protocol—drafted in the wake of a $1 billion settlement—independent certified athletic trainers are on the sidelines of all NFL games, watching for signs of concussion. If a concussion is noted, the player must complete a series of steps before they can play again. The system is a sign of improvement in a sport known for the devastating effects of brain injury, but it’s already been criticized for its shortcomings.
The NHL has adopted a similar concussion protocol, with players being pulled from the game if they show even one of a number of concussion signs. Fans, coaches, and players have complained about the strictness of the policy, but for a franchise currently facing lawsuits about their knowledge of brain injuries and their effects, it’s a small price to pay.
What You Need to Know About the Alzheimer’s Concussion Link
Although the BUSM study found that there only seems to be an Alzheimer’s concussion link for those with genetic factors for Alzheimer’s, individuals may not know whether they or a loved one has those genetic factors. Because of this, it’s important for all individuals to do everything they can to prevent concussions, treat them, and record them.
If you suffer a head injury, look for these signs of concussion.
Signs of Concussion
- Headaches or neck pain that does not go away
- Difficulty remembering, concentrating, or making decisions
- Slowness in thinking, speaking, acting, or reading
- Getting lost or easily confused
- Feeling tired all of the time, having no energy or motivation
- Mood changes (feeling sad or angry for no reason)
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Light-headedness, dizziness, or loss of balance
- Urge to vomit (nausea)
- Increased sensitivity to lights, sounds, or distractions
- Blurred vision or eyes that tire easily
- Loss of sense of smell or taste
- Ringing in the ears
If you believe you’ve had a concussion, seek medical attention and record the date of the incident somewhere you’ll remember it.