Scans can detect brain injury after repeated head impacts in sport
Brain scans of former American football players reveal signs of white matter injury, according to research into the lasting effects of repetitive head impacts in sport.
The finding is viewed as significant because until now it has been difficult to identify such damage in the brain until after death. The latest work suggests that markers of injury could be detectable using specialised MRI scans, allowing doctors to study, and potentially diagnose, such damage more readily.
“Our results are exciting because they show that white matter [scans] might capture long-term harm to the brain in people who have a history of repetitive head impacts,” said Michael Alosco, a neuropsychologist at Boston University School of Medicine and lead author of the study.
The findings come as sporting bodies continue to grapple with the question of how to improve safety as evidence has emerged linking repetitive impacts, such as during tackles in rugby or heading the ball in football, to cognitive problems such as dementia.
Alosco said that further work would be needed before the scans could be used to diagnose individuals, but that it would provide an immediate research tool to help illuminate the link between sports such as American football, boxing and rugby, and conditions such as dementia.
The study, published in the journal Neurology, involved 75 people who were exposed to repetitive head impacts and had undergone scans as part of medical assessments. All donated their brains to research after their death in order to advance research into the issue.
Of the participants, 64% were judged to have had dementia prior to death. Autopsies showed 71% had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease associated with repetitive head impacts, including those from contact sports, that can progress to dementia.