December 1, 2010

Researchers presented findings at the Radiological Society of North America’s annual meeting this week that should offer hope to people who have suffered multiple head injuries. Their study has isolated key neurochemicals that may play a role in diagnosing and treating traumatic brain injury (TBI). Medical teams will be able to identify altered levels of those neurochemicals through the use of a noninvasive imaging technique.

According to the Brain Injury Association of Oregon, prevention is the only cure for traumatic brain injury. The recent focus on sports-related head injuries by the National Football League and youth athletic programs has reinforced the importance of helmets and immediate medical attention. Preventing one concussion in a player is important, but preventing multiple concussions is critical. Multiple blows to the head can lead to a condition that changes the lives of everyone involved: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

For doctors and patients, CTE has been an enormous challenge. First, the symptoms — erratic and impulsive behavior, memory problems, depression and dementia — can begin to appear years after the injury. Second, the only way to diagnose CTE is through an autopsy, much too late to help the victim or his or her loved ones.

Early diagnosis may now be possible by using an imaging technique (magnetic resonance spectroscopy, or MRS) to gather information about the chemical compounds in the victim’s body. The powerful magnetic field and radio waves used in the MRS or “virtual biopsy” showed changes in key chemicals in the researchers’ small study group, leading them to conclude that early diagnosis and medical intervention may be possible — and the horrific effects of CTE may be avoidable.

The study involved five professional athletes, all retired from high-risk sports: football, boxing and wrestling. Aged 32 to 55, each was suspected of having CTE. Researchers examined all of the men with MRS and compared their results. What they saw were increased levels of several biochemicals, among them a cell membrane nutrient that is known to signal the presence of damaged tissue, in the athletes.

The study has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal yet, but the results offer great hope to victims of TBI and CTE. The ability to diagnose CTE early could especially change the lives of athletes, accident victims and war veterans who suffer multiple head injuries.

Source: U.S. News & World Report “Imaging May Reveal Sports-Related Brain Disorder at Early Stage” 12/1/10

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