Concussion injury damage and progressive deterioration of neurons from Alzheimer’s disease look similar on brain scans, according to the latest study. They appear to produce similar symptoms as well.
Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine studied a group of concussion patients to determine which were the ones who experienced the most severe symptoms. They reported that those who experienced mild traumatic brain injury after a fall or a blow to the head had brain scans that looked similar to those of Alzheimer’s patients.
“Previous studies have documented changes in the brain resulting from trauma to the head, and some analyses have associated concussions with a higher risk of learning problems, depression and early death.
The latest study, published in the journal of Radiology, looked at 64 patients who experienced concussions and compared their MRI brain scans a year after their injury to those of 15 healthy patients over the same time period. The images picked up white matter, which is made up of nerves and their protective coating, myelin, which facilitates connections between nerves in different regions of the brain. Networks of these nerves are responsible for cognitive functions such as memory, planning and reasoning. The scans revealed that the damage to the white matter in the concussion patients was similar to that of Alzheimer’s patients, whose nerves gradually died after being strangled by expanding plaques of amyloid proteins.”
“This same study also showed that concussion patients and Alzheimer’s patients both suffer from the same sleep-wake disturbances. These problems lean toward making other cognitive issues, such as memory lapses and changes in behavior worse. “Both groups of patients also complained of being distracted by white noise, a common result of dysfunctional white matter that makes it increasingly difficult to filter irrelevant sounds and concentrate on specific ones.
“When we sleep, the brain organizes our experiences into memories, storing them so that we can later find them. The parahippocampus is important for this process, and involvement of the parahippocampus may, in part, explain the memory problems that occur in many patients after concussion,” says study author Dr. Saeed Fakhran, an assistant professor of radiology in the Division of Neuroradiology at the University of Pittsburgh in a statement.”
This connection between Alzheimer’s pathology and concussion injuries may indeed lead to a better understanding of how concussions affect the brain over time and even how to begin to improve these negative effects. “The similarity to Alzheimer’s nerve damage, for example, suggests that the damage caused by the initial trauma continues to spur other harmful changes, just as they do in Alzheimer’s. “Our preliminary findings suggest that the initial traumatic event that caused the concussion acts as a trigger for a sequence of degenerative changes in the brain that results in patient symptoms and that may be potentially prevented. Furthermore, these neurodegenerative changes are very similar to those seen in early Alzheimer’s dementia,” says Fakhran.”
This does not mean that every patient who suffers from a concussion will then go on to develop Alzheimers, but with our knowledge of both fields growing, the link could help lead to improvements in the diagnosing and treating of both conditions. Recognizing that brain injuries caused by concussions progresses long after the initial trauma is over could and should heighten the effort to protect athletes with a high risk of concussions from getting initially injured at all.