The Lingering Impact of Head Injuries: Inflammation in the Brain

Chronic Inflammation A Culprit for Neurological Complications in Retired Football Players?

News Picture: Persistent Inflammation Could Drive Brain Issues in Former Football Players

Inflammation linked to brain issues in ex-football players

The aftermath of head injuries in sports such as football and boxing is causing long-term damage to the brain, even after athletes retire from their sports. Recent research conducted by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore sheds light on the reason behind this phenomenon: persistent inflammation in the brain linked to the initial injuries. Dr. Jennifer Coughlin, the senior author of the study and an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Hopkins, explains that the findings demonstrate a direct connection between repeated collision sports and long-term brain inflammation.

Central to these new findings is a brain “repair protein” called 18 kDa translocator protein (TSPO). When the brain sustains an injury, TSPO levels rise rapidly as the brain attempts to heal itself. TSPO is closely associated with microglia, immune cells found in the brain. Although it was previously believed that the spikes in TSPO were temporary, prior studies have unveiled that the levels of this pro-inflammatory protein can remain elevated for up to 17 years.

To investigate the impact of head injuries, the Hopkins team employed PET and MRI brain scans of 27 former NFL players, taken between 2018 and early 2023. These scans were then compared to brain scans of 27 former college swimmers—a group of athletes who would not typically endure head injuries. Both the swimmers and football players were male and aged between 24 and 45.

The scans revealed that the football players had higher levels of TSPO in their brains compared to the swimmers. Furthermore, the football players performed significantly worse than the swimmers in tests measuring learning and memory skills. These findings hold relevance for collision sport athletes, as well as other individuals who experience single or recurring mild traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), including those incurred during military training or repetitive head-banging behaviors in children.

While it might be tempting to consider treatments that could lower brain TSPO levels in older individuals with a history of head injuries, the researchers caution against it. Dr. Coughlin explains, “Since TSPO is associated with brain repair, we don’t recommend the use of drugs or other interventions at this time. Instead, we will continue to monitor TSPO levels through more research to test for signs of resolution of the injury over time.”

Nevertheless, there is hope for finding safe and effective treatments that can reduce long-term inflammation in the brain. The research team led by Dr. Coughlin plans to track TSPO levels in the brains of former NFL athletes, observing which brains heal and which do not. This data could provide valuable insight for developing new treatments and guidelines that promote long-term healing.

For more information on the health impact of sports-related concussions, you can visit the University of Michigan’s website.

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