What do athletes and military veterans have in common? Blasts from explosions may put soldiers at risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the same degenerative brain disease suffered by athletes after multiple concussions or head impacts. A study conducted by Boston University in conjunction with the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System examined the brain tissue of young veterans, comparing it to those of young athletes exhibiting signs of CTE, and found nearly identical abnormalities.
"It's very distinctive," study co-author Dr. Lee Goldstein of Boston University said in a press release. "You don't see this in normal individuals."
The study worked with a sample of only four veterans, all of whom had suffered some type of traumatic brain injury and complained of various mental and physical issues before their deaths. Though the veterans had each suffered at least one concussion prior to joining the military, which could contribute to the study's findings, a similar study with mice has confirmed that a single blast is enough to trigger brain damage.
In the study, mice were exposed to simulated blasts, which caused their heads to whip and the brain to be severely jarred. Within two weeks, the animals began to show signs of impaired brain function. When the heads of the mice were immobilized, however, they showed no signs of damage from the blast. Explained Goldstein, "The force of the blast wind causes the head to move so forcefully that it can result in damage to the brain."
The findings offer a new perspective for studying the connection between head trauma and CTE, as well as helmet design and safety for both soldiers and athletes. While helmets protect the head from hard hits, they do not offer protection against rattling of the brain, and the added weight may actually worsen the effects of a jarring hit.
"This work raises a number of questions for researchers to explore in further studies," said Dr. Joel Kupersmith, research chief at the Department of Veterans Affairs. "In particular, the animal model developed by the researchers will enable a better understanding of the brain pathology involved in blast injuries and ideally lead to new therapies to help service members and veterans."