A first international study conducted by the University of South Australia has identified a new drug to prevent athletes from developing dementia after suffering repeated head injuries during their careers.
The link between concussions and neurogenerative diseases is well established, but new research findings may halt the progression of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in athletes who sustain repeated blows to the head.
CTE is a progressive and fatal brain disease associated with the buildup of a protein called hyperphosphorylated tau that affects cognition and behavior.
In an article published in Scientific reports, UniSA Emeritus Professor Bob Vink, and colleagues show how repeated concussions can cause CTE and a way to block it with a specially developed drug.
The findings will potentially have important implications for athletes who play contact sports – such as boxers and footballers – as well as military veterans suffering from head injuries in conflict.
The team of researchers from Adelaide, Melbourne and the United States claim that the brain releases a neurotransmitter called substance P in head trauma, causing abnormal amounts of tau protein to build up inside neurons.
“Tau protein tangles are a hallmark of CTE, which is said to lead to memory problems, confusion, personality changes, aggression, depression and suicidal thoughts,” says Prof. Vink.
“Our research shows that by blocking substance P with a specific drug, we can prevent tangles of tau proteins from developing in the brain and causing neurological problems.”
The treatment has been successfully tested in animal models, giving rise to hope that CTE can be prevented in humans.
Professor Vink says the next step is clinical trials in humans, but this could take several years given that currently CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem.
A study of 14,000 Americans over 25 years, published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia in March, found that people with even a single head injury were 25% more likely to develop dementia later in life . This risk increased with multiple traumatic brain injuries.
The Guardian also reported in April that a brain scan of late AFLW player Jacinta Barclay revealed neurological damage at the age of 29, highlighting the risks of repeated concussions for both sexes. Previous research has focused on the impact of brain damage in male athletes, but women are more likely to suffer concussions.
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