Impact of head injuries

From the spring 2016 edition of Care and cure magazine, read about protein clumps associated with Alzheimer's disease being discovered in the brains of people who had experienced head injury years earlier.

A study of nine people who had had moderate to severe traumatic brain injuries found that clumps called amyloid plaques are still present in the brain over a decade after the injury. The injuries had occurred between 11 months and 17 years prior to the study, many caused by road traffic accidents. 

Although they had no physical disabilities from the injury, many still experienced memory and concentration problems. The study participants underwent a brain scan using a technique that allows scientists to view amyloid plaques. 

Serious head injuries are known to raise the risk of developing dementia, but we do not fully understand how this happens. The scientists behind this new research studied amyloid plaques accumulating in people who survived an injury but had not shown symptoms of dementia, giving insight into how it may develop.

'Research is increasingly showing that a blow to the head, such as that sustained in a road accident, triggers biological processes in the brain that burn away in the background for years,' said Dr Gregory Scott, the lead researcher.

'Although previous research has shown that some head injury patients have these amyloid plaques shortly after the incident, these findings suggest these plaques are still present in the brains of patients over 10 years later. This helps shed light on why brain injury patients seem to be at increased risk of dementia – and may help us develop treatments that reduce this risk.'

One of the earliest Alzheimer's Society research fellowships studied the build-up of amyloid in the brains of people who had died shortly after severe brain traumas. This was influential in understanding how injuries trigger the overproduction of the amyloid protein.

Dr Clare Walton, Research Communications Manager at Alzheimer's Society, said, 'It is important to note that the protein clumps seen after brain injury were much fewer and located in different regions than the clumps seen in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease. This means it is not a simple case of head injury triggering the same brain changes that occur as dementia develops.

'The effects of a severe head injury can remain hidden for years. More research is needed to understand why it puts you at an increased risk of developing dementia and whether there are ways to reduce that risk once a head injury has occurred.'

Researchers at University College London have also spoken about a study they are running with north London's Saracens rugby club to investigate changes in samples taken from players after matches. They hope to identify molecular markers that are linked to head injuries, to determine the level of injury and recommend how long a player should stop playing in order to recover.

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