Summary: Researchers find evidence of cognitive issues and miRNA biomarkers, indicating brain injuries from concussions or head-to-head contact, in college football players. The findings indicated lasting damage caused by sports related concussions occur earlier than expected.
Source: Orlando Health.
There have been more and more cases confirming that repeated hits to the head have lifelong consequences for professional football players, but a new study by Orlando Health in collaboration with the Concussion Neuroimaging Consortium finds evidence of lasting effects from head injuries at a much younger age than expected. The study tested biomarkers in the blood called microRNA’s and found that the college football players had elevated levels of these biomarkers that indicate concussions before the season even started.
“It was quite shocking to learn that the biomarkers were high before they were even involved in one hit or tackle for the season,” said Linda Papa, MD, lead author of the study and emergency medicine physician at Orlando Health “This suggests that the effects of past head injuries are persisting over time.”
Researchers also conducted cognitive tests with each study participant before and after the season and found that those who struggled with balance and memory had higher levels of the biomarkers. “Some of these players had never been diagnosed with a concussion but they still had elevated biomarker levels in their blood, indicating they likely experienced head injuries that were not severe enough to be clinically diagnosed, but still caused damage. These injuries are also known as subconcussive injuries,” said Papa.
Papa says that these biomarkers can potentially help identify those less severe head injuries so that players can get the proper treatment.
“We’re hoping that the biomarkers are actually going to give us a quantity of injury, rather than just saying whether this a concussion or not,” said Papa. “We can say to these players, ‘Yes, I can see you have had an injury because the levels of the biomarkers are elevated, and now we are going to help you.'”
While concussion protocols and improved equipment have helped in recent years, this new research shows how important it is to monitor players’ brain health and understand how continuous hits can lead to chronic issues. “There is a lot more awareness about head injuries than there used to be, and it’s really up to each parent to do their research and talk to coaches and athletic trainers,” said Papa. “Researchers from across the country are coming together to examine this issue. Once we’re aware of the dangers and risks, we can take steps to minimize them and keep the sport as it should be, a healthy activity for everybody to participate in.”
Health concerns were part of Austen Rankin’s decision to hang up his cleats in the middle of his college football career. He was sidelined by a concussion once in college, but says he likely suffered concussions while playing football growing up that were undiagnosed.
“Being injured was seen as just part of the game,” said Rankin. “When you took a hard hit, you just got up, shook it off and kept going. Maybe the next day you couldn’t think clearly or light would bother you, but when I was younger there weren’t procedures in place to deal with that.”
Austen is now a trainer and coach, and helps educate other players about protecting themselves and playing smart. “It can be really tough to put aside your love for the game and put your health first,” said Rankin. “I didn’t want to be 40 or 50 years old and have memory problems, so I decided to stop playing and focus on my future career.”
Papa says, in the future, testing for these microRNA biomarkers will potentially serve as measures of neurocognitive status and help to identify at-risk athletes to monitor them more closely so they get the treatment they need early.
Source: Drew Schaar – Orlando Health
Publisher: Organized by NeuroscienceNews.com.
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to Orlando Health.
Original Research: Abstract for “Elevations in MicroRNA Biomarkers in Serum Are Associated with Measures of Concussion, Neurocognitive Function and Subconcussive Trauma over a single NCAA Division I Season in Collegiate Football Players” by Dr. Linda Papa, Dr. Semyon Slobounov, Dr. Hans BreiterMs. Alexa WalterMr. Tim BreamDr. Peter SeidenbergDr. Julian E BailesDr. Stephen BravoDr. Brian JohnsonDr. David KaufmanDr. Dennis L. Molfese; Prof. Thomas M. Talavage, Prof. David C Zhu, Dr. Barbara Knollmann-Ritschel, and Dr. Manish Bhomia in Journal of Neurotrauma. Published October 20 2018.
Elevations in MicroRNA Biomarkers in Serum Are Associated with Measures of Concussion, Neurocognitive Function and Subconcussive Trauma over a single NCAA Division I Season in Collegiate Football Players
This prospective controlled observational cohort study assessed the performance of a novel panel of serum microRNA (miRNA) biomarkers on indicators of concussion, subconcussive impacts and neurocognitive function in collegiate football players over the playing season. Male collegiate student football athletes participating in a Division I Football Bowl Subdivision of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) were enrolled. There were a total of 53 participants included in the study, 30 non-athlete control subjects and 23 male collegiate student football athletes. Neurocognitive assessments and blood samples were taken within the week before the athletic season began and within the week after the last game of the season and measured for a panel of pre-selected miRNA biomarkers. All the athletes had elevated levels of circulating miRNAs at the beginning of the season compared to control subjects (p<0.001). Athletes with the lowest standard assessment of concussion (SAC) scores at the beginning of the season had the highest levels of miRNAs. The AUC for predicting pre-season SAC scores were miR-195 (0.90), miR-20a (0.89), miR-151-5p (0.86), miR-505* (0.85), miR-9-3p (0.77) and miR-362-3p (0.76). In athletes with declining neurocognitive function over the season, concentrations of miRNAs increased over same period. There were significant negative correlations with miR-505* (p=0.011), miR-30d (p=0.007), miR-92 (p=0.033), and miR-151-5p (p=0.008). The miRNAs correlating with balance problems were miR-505* (p=0.007), miR-30d (p=0.028), and miR-151-5p (p=0.023). Those correlating with poor reaction times were miR-20a (0.043), miR-505* (p=0.049), miR-30d (p=0.031), miR-92 (p=0.015), and miR-151-5p (p=0.044). Select miRNAs were associated with baseline concussion assessments at the beginning of the season and with neurocognitive changes from pre to post-season in collegiate football players. Should these findings be replicated in a larger cohort of athletes, these markers could potentially serve as measures of neurocognitive status in athletes at risk for concussion and subconcussive injuries.