Concussions and Head Impacts may Accelerate Brain Aging
New research has revealed that concussions and even lesser head impacts may speed up the brain's natural aging process.
A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury - TBI - caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head that can change the way your brain normally works. Concussions can also occur from a fall or a blow to the body that causes the head and brain to move quickly back and forth.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year, an estimated 1.7 million people sustain a TBI annually. TBI is a contributing factor to a third of all injury-related deaths in the United States and about 75 percent of TBIs that occur each year are concussions or other forms of mild TBI.
University of Michigan researchers examined college students with and without a history of concussion and found changes in walk, balance and in the brain's electrical activity, specifically attention and impulse control.
The declines were present in the brain injury group up to six years after injury, though the differences between the study groups were very subtle, and outwardly all of the participants looked and acted the same.
Researchers say that the studies lay out a hypothesis where concussions and head impacts accelerate the brain's natural aging process.
The study is published in the July issue of journal Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews.
But, Steven Broglio, assistant professor of kinesiology and director of the Neurotrauma Research Laboratory, said the findings should not send people into a panic frenzy.
"Just because you've had a concussion does not mean your brain will age more quickly or you'll get Alzheimer's," Broglio said. "We are only proposing how being hit in the head may lead to these other conditions, but we don't know how it all goes together just yet."
Other factors, such as lifestyle choices, smoking, alcohol consumption, physical exercise, family history and whether or not you "exercise" your brain also impact the brain's aging process. Concussion may only be one small factor.
Researchers asked the participants to perform certain tasks in front of a computer, and took images of their brains. The brains of the nonconcussed group showed a greater area of electrical activation than the participants with a history of brain injury.
The signaling pathways in our brains are similar to a five-lane highway. On a new highway, traffic runs smoothly and quickly as all lanes are in top shape. However, during normal aging, the asphalt deteriorates and lanes might become bumpy or even unusable. Traffic slows.
Similarly, our brains start with all pathways clear to transfer electrical signals rapidly. As we age, the brain's pathways break down and can't transfer the information as quickly. Concussive and other impacts to the head may result in a 'pothole' on the brain's highway, causing varying degrees of damage and speeding the pathway's natural deterioration.
"What we don't know is if you had a single concussion in high school, does that mean you will get dementia at age 50?" Broglio said. "Clinically, we don't see that. What we think is it will be a dose response.
In the next phase of study, researchers will look at people in their 20s, 40s and 60s who did and did not sustain concussions during high school sports. They hope to learn if there is an increasing effect of concussion as the study subjects age. If interested in participating in the study, email firstname.lastname@example.org.