A team of researchers including Dr. Tomas Guilarte at Florida International University has gathered evidence that neuroinflammation is present at a much younger age than previously thought in athletes who experience repetitive mild traumatic brain injury.
[Photo: Dean Tomas Guilarte]
For Dr. Guilarte, dean of FIU’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work and professor of cognitive neuroscience and imaging and environmental and occupational health, the science is confirming what has been suspected for some time.
The study, published in JAMA Neurology, compared brain images of active and recently retired NFL football players ranging in age from 23 to 39 to a control group of non-athletes of similar ages. The researchers found that neuroinflammation existed in the young NFL players’ brains without these athletes having experienced any of its neuropsychological effects or brain volume loss. Knowing that this process starts at a much younger age for those who have experienced repeated head trauma, there is renewed urgency to the work of researchers to focus their efforts on earlier detection, better understanding of the mechanisms behind these diseases and possible therapies.
Scientists already know that when the brain experiences repeated, forceful blows it triggers a chain reaction that ends with lasting injury to the brain.
“The brain wasn’t meant to be rattled,” says Dean Guilarte, “so every time it experiences this type of impact neurons get injured.”
In response to this assault, certain cells in the brain produce increased amounts of Translocator Protein 18 kDa, or TSPO. Too much TSPO in the brain is a symptom of neuroinflammation. Once present, neuroinflammation persists.
Two years ago, Guilarte and this same group of colleagues published a study that found neuroinflammation in the brains of football players who had been retired for many years. Chronic neuroinflammation eventually leads to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive disease of the brain that afflicts many former football players.
Guilarte finds these latest results so significant that he feels it is important to initiate research with high school- and college-aged football players to determine whether TSPO is present in their brains.
Guilarte and his research team have been working on TSPO for more than 20 years. The early research involved the validation of TSPO as a biomarker of brain injury and neuroinflammation. For the past four years Guilarte’s research team has been looking at the function of the TSPO protein that signals the presence of neuroinflammation.
“We know that TSPO increases when there is brain injury and inflammation. What is less clear is what this protein is doing,” he says. “There is evidence that chemicals that bind to this protein could have therapeutic potential, but the scientific community can’t move forward until we understand TSPO’s function.”