Many research teams have been looking for a reliable tool to determine the possibility of serious neuropsychological damage after repeated brain injury. Not only are sports professionals interested in finding it for the benefit of players in contact sports but also the parents of young people practicing it.

A new study published online in JAMA Neurology describes such a tool to measure the inflammation of in the brains of football players, before the clinical deficiencies become evident. Dr. Coughlin et al. radio-tagged the protein 18 kDa (TSPO), which might be related with the activation of the microglia—the immune cells that herald the repair of injured brain tissue.

The study compared four active and 10 recently retired NFL players with 16 participants that were matched for age, sex, education and body mass index. The mean age of the players and the control participants was 31.3 years. Using TSPO radio-imaging techniques, they found that the NFL players showed significantly higher levels in 8 of the 12 brain regions examined.; there was also limited changes in the brain white matter in 13 NFL players. The neuropsychological evaluation did not yield any significant differences.

The experts disagree about the utility of this study as it involved a small number of participants and it could not be a reliable indicator of the long-tem changes in brain health over a course of a lifetime. However they all agree that it could pave the way for new clinical studies to measure the inflammation of contact sports players before crippling lesions are evident.

There is increased media attention about the brain injury of professional and amateur players of contact sports; even Hollywood has joined the frenzy with movies like “Concussion.” For parents with small children, there is a perception that they are not safe and demand alternatives like “flag football.”

As long as the civic society claims for more transparency in sports medicine that not only protects the interests of business franchises and sponsors but also the participants there will be new studies to identify biomarkers to detect early injuries to the brain.

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