Scots scientists find link between sports head injuries and dementia
SCOTTISH scientists have identified widespread Alzheimer's disease-like pathology in approximately one third of long-term survivors of a single head injury.
Researchers at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow say this provides the first clear evidence of abnormalities in the brains of those surviving one head injury - and supports the growing clinical view that a head injury could develop into chronic disease.
In the study, appearing online in Brain Pathology, researchers suggest Alzheimer's disease-like neurodegeneration may begin or accelerate following a single injury to the head, even among young adults.
Until this latest research, conducted in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania, neurodegenerative pathology following a traumatic brain injury (TBI) had only been documented in a small number of patients with a history of repetitive head injury, such as boxers, or more recently, American footballers.
TBIs are particularly identified as an established risk factor for later development of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.
Over 150,000 people in the UK suffer a head injury each year.
Currently those taking part in sports such as skate-boarding, cycling and rugby are not required by law to wear protective headgear. Last night, safety and head injury campaigners said the wearing of protective headgear should not be compulsory for adults but that they would encourage parents to equip their children.
Dr Willie Stewart, consultant neuropathologist at the hospital, the study's co-senior author, said: "These are exciting results. What we have found, quite remarkably, is that a proportion of patients with a single head injury had widespread and large amounts of markers in their brains which are normally only seen in the very elderly or in patients with Alzheimer's disease.
"This study may be significant in terms of understanding dementia. Dementia is a particular challenge, especially with an ageing population. In the vast majority of cases we do not currently know what triggers the process leading to dementia in the first place.
"However, if we know when this process may begin, such as with a head injury, we can learn more about it."
In the study researchers compared post-mortem brains from 39 patients, surviving from 1 to 47 years after head injury, to uninjured, age-matched controls.
They found that brains of TBI survivors showed high numbers of amyloid-beta plaques with the majority of these displaying a particular form of plaque typical of those found in Alzheimer's disease.Duncan Vernon, road safety manager at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA) said: "When helmets are worn properly they are effective in reducing brain injuries.
"But ROSPA doesn't believe it is practical to make cycle helmets, or those for sports such as skate boarding or rugby, mandatory. We would encourage it but don't feel it should be enforced."
Simon Glen, project co- ordinator for Headway Glasgow, which campaigns for those who have suffered a head injury, said: "Our policy is that people should wear a helmet if they are taking part in an activity which could lead to a bump on the head. Adults can make up their own minds but we believe children should be protected."
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