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Head impacts and brain health: progress and potential

Wembley Stadium has provided the backdrop for some of the nation’s most powerful shared memories – numerous FA Cup Finals, Queen’s legendary performance at Live Aid, and perhaps most famously England’s 1966 World Cup win.

This week the stadium was host to a different kind of event. Doctors, researchers and other experts came together to discuss how we can protect memories and limit the long-term consequences of head injuries in sport.

Recently high-profile dementia cases, particularly within the sporting community, have driven interest in this area and a major 2019 study suggested some ex-professional sports players are at increased risk of developing dementia.

The Drake Foundation last held their Sports Head Impact Research Symposium in 2019, so this was a good chance to catch up on the latest progress.

Signs that more research is taking place

A promising takeaway from the conference was that it was bigger than previous years, more people attended and there was a broader range of talks.

There was a clear sense that the field is gaining traction, and there were several updates from existing studies that have already provided interesting results.

Individual sporting bodies have also increased their involvement and investment in research, and studies are now happening in various universities, NHS departments, sports clubs and leagues across the country.

However, the long-term outcomes of head impacts, and the possibility of developing diseases like Alzheimer’s, is an issue wider than one individual sport.

There’s a need for collaboration and consensus about how to face the challenges the sector faces.

Challenges, collaboration, and consensus

There are some key questions researchers at the conference are grappling with:

  • How do we best collect data about head injury and dementia risk in a way that’s meaningful to players, coaches, medics and allows researchers to answer the questions they have?
  • How can we prevent injury happening in the first place?
  • What level of dementia risk is acceptable?
  • What do we say now to people who currently play the sport, those who have already retired or those that may have developed dementia?

These challenges are complex and will require commitment from people and organisations in several different spheres including the research field, the policy arena, the sporting world, and education sector.

Much of the current work is also focused on the risks of head impacts in elite sports. How can we make headway on work that will help us better understand the balance between any risks and benefits of sport and longer-term brain health in the general population?

Harnessing the interest and power that policy makers have in this area and ensuring work is embedded in wider public health recommendations will be critical as we move forward.

How is our funding already making a difference?

One area where our funding is building part of the solution is when it comes to diagnosis.

If we could better diagnose the outcome of brain impact, we would be able to give better treatments to those who have them and understand more about what we could put in place to mitigate the risks.

 

At the symposium, Alzheimer’s Research UK funded clinician Dr Neil Graham from Imperial College London talked about a protein found in the blood called neurofilament light chain.

Neurofilament light chain is a structural component of nerve cells in the brain. It leaks from the brain when these nerve cells become damaged and can end up in the bloodstream and spinal fluid.

Researchers think that measuring the levels of this protein after a head impact could help give a better picture about what’s happening in the brain. It also better predicts longer term problems of brain health.

But it’s a blood test that currently takes several hours to complete and analyse.

How could similar markers be used to meet the needs of doctors working right now, perhaps on the pitch side? Saliva samples could be a quick and more convenient alternative…

Markers in the saliva called microRNAs, have given insights into the body’s response to injury as it evolves – from immediately after trauma, to several hours and even days later.

Perhaps these could be used as a diagnostic tool in addition to current head injury assessment protocols in sport?

It will be interesting to see how these encouraging steps in diagnosis will be taken forward in further work.

So, what can you do?

There was a lot covered at the event and there’s even more happening in this space.

Alzheimer’s Research UK is already partnered with The Health Policy Partnership and conducting a review of research evidence on the links between sport and dementia. We hope this work will help direct future research and funding.

 

As a charity we rely on the good will of our supporters. You can support this work and make breakthroughs possible online. Every donation takes us a step us closer to bringing about the first life-changing treatment to slow or stop dementia.

If you have any questions about this area of research, or dementia in general, contact Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Dementia Research Infoline on 0300 111 5 111.

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About the author

Ed Pinches

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