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How Head Injuries Lead to Serious Brain Diseases

Written by Berkowitz

A bump on the head is something you can shake off – or is it?

Back in the day, head injuries were often referred to as “ringing your bell.” And most of the time, parents and coaches would tell you to shake it off and get back out there. Today, you are likely to receive a much different response.

Head trauma is more than something you shake off. In fact, head injuries have been found to lead to severe, degenerative brain diseases that impact a person’s quality of life – and in most cases, shorten that lifespan, too.

The brain is a highly unique feature of the human body. It consists of neurons, chemicals, and thrives on a delicate balance. When altered, it can create a whirlwind leading to long-term damage and possibly a deadly brain disease.

While you might have heard of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), that is only one of the many diseases caused by head trauma. In fact, research has found that other degenerative disorders and even mental illness all stem from head injuries, too.

Head Injuries Affect Hundreds of Genes and Lead to Brain Disease

In 2017, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), released a study about how head injuries affected hundreds of genes in the brain. And by adversely affecting those genes, it put patients at higher risk for developing brain diseases like:

  • ADHD
  • Autism
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Stroke
  • Depression and Schizophrenia

In this study, UCLA researchers identified what they referred to as master genes. These master genes controlled hundreds of others inside the brain and were linked to Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and other degenerative disorders. By knowing these genes, scientists now can work on creating medications that target them and treat the diseases they cause.

During their research, UCLA scientists found that the master genes were responsible for traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).  And when one suffered a TBI, the master gene altered the other genes and led to degenerative disorders. Using rats, they found that they could identify which genes were affected by traumatic brain injuries and the diseases they linked to. They also were able to detect inflammation and cell communication, which may help them create effective treatments in the future.

How Altered Genes Develop Brain Diseases and Disorders

A team of UCLA biologists looked at how head trauma affected the cells and genes of the brain that caused life-altering disorders. Their study focused on over 6,000 cells of the 15 hippocampal cell types, and it was the first study of its kind to focus on these areas. While each cell carries the same DNA, the genes that are activated vary by cell type. UCLA found that each cell type is different, and hundreds of genes are adversely affected when TBIs occur. The altered genes then trigger others to manipulate and reproduce, and eventually a disease is born – and once born, it cannot stop.

Even a mild TBI, such as a concussion, can cause the alteration. However, the scientists also noted that a person might suffer a TBI and never develop a brain disease.

Brain Trauma Can Cause Mental Illness

Another common way brain injury leads to brain disorders is through mental illness. A person who suffers a TBI is at risk for developing mental disorders, and in some cases, it can be over 400 percent.

A study by Danish scientists found that a concussion, and even skull fracture, increased the risk of developing these disorders. It was the most extensive study of its kind and published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2014. The study looked at over 1.4 million individuals. By comparing their risk to the rest of the population who had not suffered from head trauma, the researchers found:

  • 65 percent were more likely to develop schizophrenia;
  • 59 percent were more likely to develop depression;
  • 28 percent were more likely to be diagnosed as bipolar; and
  • 439 percent were more likely to suffer from an organic mental disorder.

Inflammation and Altered Neurotransmitters Likely to Blame

While the research team was looking at the increased risk, they speculated that there might be a correlation between head trauma, inflammation, and distributed neurotransmitters. Animal studies have shown that TBIs create inflammation in the brain, which can increase a person’s risk for psychological symptoms.

Head trauma can also permanently destroy a part of the brain, and that damage leads to the development of certain organic mental illnesses. A concussion can alter neurotransmitters that send communications to various areas of the nervous system. And when they are off balance, it might increase the chance of a mental disorder, too.

Lastly, when head trauma occurs in a violent or traumatic accident, it is more likely to lead to mental disorders.

Repeated Head Trauma May Cause CTE

Another illness associated with head trauma is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a brain disorder that occurs from repeated TBIs. A person is unlikely to develop CTE from one blow to the head, but multiple blows increase the risk they will develop it.

How Brain Trauma Leads to CTE

As stated before, the brain relies on neurons, cells, and chemicals being in pristine balance. CTE develops because frequent head trauma forces Tau protein to form. As it builds, it clumps together and begins spreading through the brain and kills healthy brain cells in the process.

CTE is more common in people who play aggressive sports such as hockey, football, and boxing. Military members may also suffer from CTE when in combat. It has been diagnosed in victims as young as 17, but most people will not see an onset of symptoms until years later. The most common age for diagnosing CTE is 20 to 30.

As CTE progresses, the symptoms worsen. These symptoms range from memory loss to confusion to impaired judgment and even violent behavior in some. The memory and confusion issues often lead to a misdiagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia, and some victims are diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.

Unfortunately, there is no blood test or scan that can accurately diagnose this disease. This is why it is typically misdiagnosed as a related disorder. Only upon autopsy can CTE be diagnosed.

CTE Is “Punch Drunk Syndrome”

CTE is not new, and only recently has it become something that people are more aware of. In fact, CTE was first described in 1928 as “punch drunk syndrome” when Dr. Harrison Martland described how boxers were behaving after repeated head trauma.

Over the next 75 years, scientists began looking into this syndrome, and similar findings occurred in more of the professional boxers. It wasn’t until 2005 when a pathologist named Dr. Omalu first found evidence of CTE in an American football player – Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster.

It was then that researchers realized it was not only boxers that could develop this disorder. Multiple research institutes and foundations were formed to bring awareness and fund research efforts.

The U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs and Boston University partnered to study this condition in military members. The Brain Bank, controlled by Boston University, has allowed them to conduct in-depth research on former football players, hockey players, and military service members.

Hundreds of Impacts Are Required

Suffering three concussions is often not enough. Instead, CTE occurs from repetitive hits to the head sustained over several years. These impacts are more than a few concussions. Instead, those diagnosed with CTE often suffered hundreds of impacts over the years of playing contact sports or during their military combat career. Also, researchers point out that it is not just concussions causing CTE. Instead, these are multiple sub-concussive impacts and strikes that do not even lead to a concussion. Instead, the impacts are enough to jolt the brain and force it to develop Tau protein.

Some ways specific careers are more at risk for developing CTE include:

  • Boxers – From repeated head punches and strikes.
  • Tackle Football Players – Hits to the helmet during tackles, falls, and striking another player.
  • Soccer Players – Headers and collisions on the field.
  • Ice Hockey Players – Checking, falls on the ice, and fights.
  • Military Service Members – Blast injuries, falls, combat, and accidents.
  • Domestic Violence Victims – Repeated abuse from physical altercations.

Risk Factors Are Key

Not everyone who suffers repeated head trauma develops CTE either. During their research, scientists have found specific factors that make a person more likely to develop CTE than others:

  • Age of Exposure: Age is critical. Research has found that those in contact sports experiencing head impacts before age 12 are at higher risk for developing CTE and having worse outcomes than those who start playing after age 12.
  • Length of Exposure: It takes years of repeated exposure to develop CTE. Athletes with long careers in contact sports are more likely to develop the condition than those in short stints. Also, those with longer careers have worse pathology and more serious symptoms from their CTE.
  • Other Possibilities: CTE is still being researched, but some theories for risk factors include genetics and how they may increase a person’s risk for developing CTE.

How Brain Injuries Lead to Other Diseases

Brain trauma can lead to other diseases related to the injury – directly or not. Some disorders and diseases that relate to repeated brain trauma include:

  • Seizure Disorders – A person with a TBI may develop temporary seizures or suffer from a long-term seizure disorder because of their brain trauma. Recurring seizures after a TBI are called post-traumatic epilepsy.
  • Brain Infections – Another disease that may result from head injuries are infections. Skull fractures or a penetrating injury to the brain increase the risk of brain infections. That’s because these injuries tear the delicate protective tissue layers around the brain. Bacteria enters into the opening, and the infection of the meninges can spread to the rest of the nervous system if not treated quickly.
  • Migraine Disorders – A person may suffer from frequent headaches or migraines after a TBI that affect them the rest of their life.
  • Paralysis – When nerves are damaged inside the brain, it may lead to the paralysis of facial muscles or loss of sensation in the face. Other times, the damage to the cranial nerves can lead to an altered sense of taste, smell, or loss of vision.
  • Dementia Pugilistic – Dementia pugilistica is a disease associated with repetitive strikes to the head and often found in boxers with long careers. The symptoms are like dementia and worsen over time.

If you or a loved one has suffered a serious injury, contact Berkowitz Hanna today to schedule a no-obligation case evaluation. Our team can help you seek compensation for your head trauma or subsequent diseases from repeated head trauma.

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