Published on: January 15, 2017
by Lindsay Kalter for Boston Herald:
Suffering just one concussion could increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s for those who already have a genetic predisposition, according to a new finding from Boston University researchers that could help prevent the onset of symptoms later in life.
“A lot of times when you get that Alzheimer’s diagnosis, the brain is far gone at that point, and medication can only do so much,” said Jasmeet Hayes, research psychologist for the VA Boston Healthcare System and a BU professor. “But if we try to intervene at an earlier point in people’s lives, that’s where the important part of this research is going to come in.”
Other BU researchers have linked repeated head trauma from contact sports to the progressive degenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. But very little research has been done on the long-term effects of one-time hits and how they manifest when combined with genetic factors, said Hayes, who is the study’s first author.
“Most of the research that’s come out with concussions looks at repetitive concussions in contact sports,” Hayes said. “But for the most part, single concussions or concussions that have been spread out over one’s lifetime have largely been ignored or thought to be negligible.”
Hayes and her team studied a group of 160 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, some who had suffered concussions and some who had not. Their genomes were also analyzed to determine the level of genetic risk for each vet.
MRI imaging was used to examine the thickness of each participant’s cerebral cortex — an area of the brain that is first to degrade during the onset of Alzheimer’s, according to the study, published this week in the journal Brain.
The group’s average age was 32.
Those with a high genetic risk who had suffered at least one concussion showed a decline in cortex thickness, and scored lower on some memory tasks.
But Hayes was careful to note that people who suffer concussions, for the most part, do not carry this risk.
“Most people go back to baseline functions within three to six months, but there’s a segment who don’t go back to normal functioning and will later in life develop something like Alzheimer’s,” Hayes said, “and we’re trying to figure out who those people might be.”
She said the researchers will expand their participant pool and follow their performance over time.
More than five million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, and there are no medications approved by the FDA that target the illness’ underlying mechanisms. This makes it especially important to pinpoint potential risks, according to Jim Wessler, president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association Massachusetts/New Hampshire chapter.
The message in this type of research, he said, is: “You only have one brain. You need to protect it.”
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