A group led by Michael Alosco, PhD, of Boston University found that brain scans taken during the lifetimes of these athletes showed changes in white matter hyperintensities that corresponded to findings on autopsy acquired after the athletes died. These changes were associated with neuropathological conditions.
"Our results are exciting because they show that white-matter hyperintensities might capture long-term harm to the brain in people who have a history of repetitive head impacts," Alosco said in a statement released by the American Academy of Neurology. "White-matter hyperintensities on MRI may indeed be an effective tool to study the effects of repetitive head impacts on the brain's white matter while the athlete is still alive."
The study included 75 athletes exposed to repetitive head impacts; of these, 67 were football players. Of the football players, 16 played professionally and 11 semiprofessionally. All donated their brains to research after their death.
Alosco's team found that 64% of the study participants had dementia before they died. Autopsy showed that 71% had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease associated with repetitive head impacts. The group also found the following:
- For every volume-unit difference in white-matter hyperintensity, the individual had twice the odds of having severe small vessel disease and three times the odds of severe tau accumulation in the brain's frontal lobe.
- Higher levels of white-matter hyperintensities were also linked to more years of football play.
"We need more research to determine the unique risk factors and causes of these brain lesions in people with a history of repetitive head impacts," Alosco said.
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