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Psychiatry Newsletter - Can a Protein Indicate Brain Injury in Older NFL Players?

Hopkins BrainWise - Spring 2015

Can a Protein Indicate Brain Injury in Older NFL Players?

Date: May 26, 2015

Healthy Controls and Former NFL Players
This PET scan shows increased binding of a protein (represented in yellow), known to indicate brain injury, in the brain of a former NFL football player compared to a healthy male of similar age. The player sustained sports-related traumatic brain injury and belatedly reports impaired brain function. Johns Hopkins researchers introduced this neuroimaging approach for showing changes in the brain that could be related to sports-related brain trauma.

Most of us who play or watch football have seen players get hurt. Some injuries are mild. Some can be career ending. But what about those that aren’t immediately visible? Today, researchers and the sports industry are looking at whether sports-related traumatic brain injury can launch progressive brain pathologies whose symptoms may go undetected for years.

To help shed light on that question and open doors to treatments, cures and new ways of protecting the brain from the initial traumatic injury, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Department of Radiology and Radiological Sciences are testing a new imaging approach for spotting signs of sports-related traumatic brain injury in former NFL football players.

In their study published in the February 2015 issue of the journal Neurobiology of Disease, psychiatrist Jennifer Coughlin and colleagues enrolled retired NFL players, ages 57 to 74, who were recruited to the study by the NFL Players Association and by word of mouth. In both the players and normal aged-matched controls, the researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) to detect binding of a radiolabel to a known indicator of brain injury and repair called translocator protein.

Results showed that radiolabel binding was higher in players than in controls. Of the 12 brain regions studied, three—the right and left supramarginal cortex and the right side amygdala—showed significantly elevated radiolabel binding in the football players compared to the controls.

Coughlin emphasizes that this was a pilot study to test whether their approach is valid for studying brain injury. “Only nine players were studied,” she says, “which means that the number is too small to rule out other factors that might cause similar symptoms,” such as smoking, drug and alcohol use, and family history of dementia.

“We hope to recruit more participants and partner with our colleagues around the country who will join us in using this and related PET scan techniques to look for brain events in football players,” Coughlin adds. “That may be the best way to provide enough data to reach more solid conclusions so we can eventually better guide players who suffer concussions.”

The research was supported by several funders including the National Institutes of Health, the NFL Charities and the GE/NFL Head Health Challenge. All want to know whether (and if so, how) repetitive hits to the head can trigger a biological pathway in the brain and cognitive, mood and behavioral impairments.