PET Scan May Help Identify Brain Damage in Football Players

No doubt, football is a dangerous sport. Researchers have been using to PET scans to detect brain damage from even minor concussions. A PET scan uses a radioactive tracer to show how your tissues and organs are functioning. The most interesting aspect to this story is that even young football players showed elevated levels of the protein in question.

The researchers used PET scans to measure the levels of translocator protein 18KDa (TSPO), thought to be present in traumatic brain injury. About 10 NFL players were compared to about 16 men who were not athletes and had no history of brain injury. Even young NFL players showed elevated levels of the protein. This means that damage most likely is occurring before their professional careers. It could be occurring in college or even earlier. This research may be a cautionary tale to younger men interested in pursuing the sport.

Compared to men without concussions, the football players had higher levels of TSPO and greater changes in white matter. White matter is composed of myelin that transmits signals across the brain. The study was interesting but small. Future research needs to be done at a larger scale to bolster their findings. If the results hold up, it may be possible to use PET scans to look for TSPO in order to predict who is at risk for neurological or psychiatric problems after TBI.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins focused on the resident immune cell in the brain called microglia. This kind of cell is believed to play a role in the brain’s response to injury and other neurodegenerative processes. They believe that after injury there is prolonged activation of microglia. This causes normally low levels of TSPO to increase.

The study, published in JAMA Neurology, showed that NFL players had higher TSPO in eight of the 12 regions examined in the brain. The study included retired NFL players that averaged about seven years since their last concussion.

The study offers hope that scientists may be able to pinpoint the extent of brain damage in a person as well as potentially treat inflammation in the brain in order to limit the negative health impacts of brain injury. Many scientists have hypothesized that chronic inflammation may lead to depression, cognitive decline, and cellular and structural damage within the brain, according to the accompanying editorial also published in JAMA Neurology.

The author of the editorial told Reuters in an email that the findings apply to more than just football players. Chronic inflammation (or microglia activation) is probably a key factor in other neurological diseases and even in normal aging, he writes. If doctors can identify the source of the problem before their patients start to develop neurological complications, they can intervene. The source of inflammation in brain cells is a tough code to crack, but scientists are trying.


Gordon Johnson

Attorney Gordon Johnson is one of the nations leading brain injury advocates. He is Past-Chair of the TBILG, a national group of more than 150 brain injury advocates. He has spoken at numerous brain injury seminars and is the author of some of the most read brain injury web pages on the internet.

More Posts - Website - 312-767-9383

TwitterFacebookLinkedInGoogle Plus