New study: One step closer to measuring concussion impact
December 1st, 2010
12:06 PM ET

New study: One step closer to measuring concussion impact

One of the vexing realities when it comes to concussion is that its impact on the brain is impossible to measure. There is no MRI, no X-ray, no test to describe how it might cause brain damage. That could change, according to a new, small study presented at the Radiological Society of North America annual meeting.

"It is an exciting, albeit very early, development for an injury that today is considered invisible," said lead author Alexander Lin, assistant professor of radiology at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Researchers tested five athletes' brains using a technology called magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Lin and colleagues scanned the former athletes - all had a history of repetitive head trauma - and were surprised to find marked increases in chemicals they believe could be associated with concussion.  Researchers were particularly interested in two chemicals - glutamate and choline.

"We saw changes in all of the players," said Lin."[Increased] choline is a marker for damaged tissue and glutamate is neurotoxic at high levels, something we think could be the result of repetitive head injuries. We are trying to understand what role they play in the physiology of [brain trauma]."

According to the study, "The subject with the highest cumulative head trauma showing the greatest cognitive symptoms has the highest level of neurochemical changes."

But experts say a better understanding, and many more subjects, are necessary before hopes are raised about MR spectography to diagnose concussion.

"We are some time away from using spectroscopy to determine definitively whether minor head insults cause brain injury in a young athlete," said Dr. Michael Brant-Zawadzki, executive medical director of the Neurosciences Institute at Hoag Memorial Hospital.

Study subjects included football players, wrestlers, and a boxer either had a concussion diagnosed or an accumulation of smaller hits called sub-concussions. All five athletes exhibited symptoms associated with a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy.  CTE manifests as dark brown tangles in the brain that are associated with depression, memory loss and dramatic mood swings.

For now, CTE can  be diagnosed only using posthumous biopsies of players' brains. Lin hopes that larger studies using spectroscopy will eventually allow researchers to diagnose CTE (and concussion) with brain scans while players are still alive.

"We know something is wrong inside of brains of a considerable number of high level, high impact sport athletes," said Chris Nowinski, co-director of Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which was involved with this study. "With only five cases, we certainly can't draw any conclusions, but this takes us a step closer to identifying what the issue is."

Lin also is cautiously optimistic: "As we grow the study we are convinced we will find a pattern unique to repetitive head injury."

soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. Dr Bill Toth

    This is an exciting start and there is a significant difference between association and causation. As a parent of young athletes I look forward to more research sooner. Live With Intention, DrBillToth.com/blog

    December 2, 2010 at 02:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. HPN

    To me the next step is to examine the brains of some people who have shown the same type of change in their human behavior (there are some I am sure) who have not been exposed to continuous head trauma and see if those same type bands are present. Until this is done, it is just an assumption that head trauma is the cause of the bands and the behavior changes .

    December 2, 2010 at 08:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Korreon

    the brain is so wonderful

    December 2, 2010 at 09:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Dr Nathaniel Popp

    Concussion is a real issue. Its great to see such terrific research being done!

    December 6, 2010 at 02:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. pagingdrgupta.blogs.cnn.com

    New study one step closer to measuring concussion impact.. Smashing 🙂

    April 19, 2011 at 07:10 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.

December 2010
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