Study links dementia to head injuries

March 23, 2016
Protective head gear in contact sports is being encouraged. Credit: Wikipedia

Repeated minor trauma to the head and other body parts can lead to early dementia, according to a study by a Massey University health psychology graduate.

Researcher Virginia Westerberg says her master's study completed last year reinforces recent media coverage in the New Zealand Herald, which highlighted the risks of from traumatic head injuries such as concussion, particularly through contact sports such as rugby.

Concerned by the growing trauma statistics in New Zealand and dearth of research into the consequences, she designed a large-scale study through Massey's School of Psychology in collaboration with Palmerston North Hospital involving a database of nearly 7,000 cases.

The results showed that a history of traumatic injury (TI) was more frequently found in cases with dementia than in the controls," Ms Westerberg says. "The findings strongly indicate that the brain is affected by the way the body responds to traumatic injury, both locally – with micro-haemorrhages, local inflammatory response and neuronal death – and systemically, with chronic inflammatory response."

She found that just over 73 per cent of people with dementia had had a traumatic injury in the past that was significant enough to require admission in the emergency department. Only 26 per cent of the non-dementia controls had a history of trauma. The data didn't specify whether the injuries were caused by falls, blows, accidents or sporting injury.

Her study highlights the risks of both repeated traumatic injury, as well as the impact of injury to other parts of the body on the brain. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a type of dementia that is related to the repeated blows to the head that occur in contact sports. CTE affects the bodies of neurons that specialise in memory, language, perception, thought, and attention, she says.

"The conclusion was that the direct and indirect consequences of traumatic injury –not only to the head but also to other body areas, if significant – could constitute a plausible risk factor for the earlier development or faster progression of dementia."

Mild head injuries common and unreported

Her study showed "the long term effects of repeated mild blows to the head were as exceedingly common as they were unreported and as damaging as a single episode of a higher grade brain trauma."

She says the first time and concussion were linked together was when Nigerian-American forensic neuropathologist, Dr Bennet Omalu, performed an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers football player, Mike Webster. The recent film Concussion, starring Will Smith, tells the story of his discovery.

Ms Westerberg, who moved from Barcelona to live in New Zealand seven years ago to join her husband, having almost completed a medical degree in Spain. Unable to repeat the training here, she decided to cross-credit and do further study in her area of interest by exploring the issue of traumatic head injury in sport.

A keen horse rider and Taekwondo practitioner, she has suffered injuries herself and anticipated she would find a strong awareness and knowledge of injury risk and prevention in New Zealand, where are popular. She was surprised by the lack of interest from various sports organisations, and by the silence that greeted her whenever she approached them about doing research. "So I decided to attack the problem from another angle and instead to look at cases as my starting point," she says.

She notes that pre-existing or degenerative conditions are excluded from the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC), as are any kind of illness, psychological conditions related to ageing, and all non-job related injuries that come on gradually.

Future research could provide the solid evidence that a repeated, minor traumatic event could cause organic or functional brain damage leading to progressive cognitive impairment, such as dementia. This could pave the way for such conditions to be covered by ACC, she says.

"For the time being, because there is no treatment or cure for CTE, risk awareness of your sport and injury prevention are vital. Great emphasis is put by most official sports organizations about wearing protective headgear during training and in competitions."

Explore further: True dangers of head trauma often misunderstood

Related Stories

True dangers of head trauma often misunderstood

March 18, 2016
When actor Will Smith plays a forensic pathologist who discovers neurological deterioration similar to Alzheimer's disease in the brain of a former NFL football player, the world pays attention.

New formula can predict professional football players' long-term concussion damages

March 1, 2016
Amid the heightened awareness of concussion-related brain damage among professional football players, a new study reports that researchers can predict cognitive outcomes long after the players have retired by reviewing the ...

First-of-its-kind study explains why rest is critical after a concussion

February 5, 2016
Doctors who order several days of rest after a person suffers a concussion are giving sound advice, say researchers, and new data from animal models explains why.

Head injuries could result in neurodegenerative disease in rugby union players

May 22, 2015
A new article publishing online today in the Quarterly Journal of Medicine has reported the first case showing an association between exposure to head injuries in rugby union players and an increased risk in neurodegenerative ...

A call for more research on brain damage in American football

March 24, 2015
More research is needed to identify how athletes sustain brain injury from American football, and also to develop strategies to protect them, write experts in The BMJ today.

Head injury tied to long-term attention issues in kids

August 3, 2015
(HealthDay)—Children who suffer even mild brain injuries may experience momentary lapses in attention long after their accident, new research finds.

Recommended for you

Scientists block evolution's molecular nerve pruning in rodents

July 27, 2017
Researchers investigating why some people suffer from motor disabilities report they may have dialed back evolution's clock a few ticks by blocking molecular pruning of sophisticated brain-to-limb nerve connections in maturing ...

In witnessing the brain's 'aha!' moment, scientists shed light on biology of consciousness

July 27, 2017
Columbia scientists have identified the brain's 'aha!' moment—that flash in time when you suddenly become aware of information, such as knowing the answer to a difficult question. Today's findings in humans, combined with ...

Social influences can override aggression in male mice, study shows

July 27, 2017
Stanford University School of Medicine investigators have identified a cluster of nerve cells in the male mouse's brain that, when activated, triggers territorial rage in a variety of situations. Activating the same cluster ...

Scientists become research subjects in after-hours brain-scanning project

July 27, 2017
A quest to analyze the unique features of individual human brains evolved into the so-called Midnight Scan Club, a group of scientists who had big ideas but almost no funding and little time to research the trillions of neural ...

Researchers reveal unusual chemistry of protein with role in neurodegenerative disorders

July 27, 2017
A common feature of neurodegenerative diseases is the formation of permanent tangles of insoluble proteins in cells. The beta-amyloid plaques found in people with Alzheimer's disease and the inclusion bodies in motor neurons ...

Mother's brain reward response to offspring reduced by substance addiction

July 27, 2017
Maternal addiction and its effects on children is a major public health problem, often leading to high rates of child abuse, neglect and foster care placement. In a study published today in the journal Human Brain Mapping, ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.