According to new research from the University of Virginia School of Medicine, even concussions that are considered minor can cause severe and long-lasting impairments in the brain's ability to cleanse itself of toxins, which can put the brain at risk for Alzheimer's disease, dementia, and other neurodegenerative issues.
This discovery offers important insights into traumatic brain injury (TBI) and can help explain why TBI is so harmful in vulnerable groups like athletes and veterans. The research also suggests that certain patients are at greater risk of declining brain function later in life. According to John Lukens, Ph.D., of UVA's Department of Neuroscience and the Center for Brain Immunology and Glia (BIG):
"This provides some of the best evidence yet that if you haven't recovered from a brain injury and you get hit in the head again, you're going to have even more severe consequences. This reinforces the idea that you have to give people an opportunity to heal. And if you don't, you're putting yourself at a much higher risk for long-term consequences that you might not see in a year but could see in a couple of decades."
Lukens' research found a previously unknown consequence of TBI that might have long-lasting effects. The UVA researchers found that when pressure is put on lymphatic vessels that clean the brain it can cause serious and long-lasting impairment of the brain's ability to clean itself of toxins. Researchers studied lab mice and found the impairment could last for least two weeks and possibly much longer. According to researcher Ashley C. Bolte:
“We know that traumatic brain injury carries an increased risk for a bunch of long-term issues like dementia, Alzheimer's disease and CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy], and this has really been made extra public because of the NFL. Then there's also anxiety, depression, suicide. The reasons why TBI results in increased risk for this isn't totally known, and we think that our findings might provide a mechanism as to why."
The research reveals that people with brain drainage from either prior concussions or natural causes are likely to experience more severe consequences from TBI. In the lab mice that researchers observed, this led to more brain inflammation and worse outcomes, including memory impairment.
Speaking about whether it will eventually be possible for doctors to evaluate brain drainage after an injury to determine when it is safest for patients to return to activity, Lukens said:
"Right now, we really don't know what to tell these kids who want to get back out on the field, or even members of the military. It would be important to have empirical tests to say you can continue or never to do those things ever again."
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