Scientists have identified a drug to halt the development of dementia in athletes who have sustained multiple head injuries.
In the world-first international study, researchers made major steps towards halting the progression of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in sportspeople who sustain repeated blows to the head. The symptoms of CTE affect the functioning of the brain and eventually lead to dementia.
The findings have been published in Scientific Reports.
CTE is a progressive and fatal brain disease associated with the accumulation of a protein known as hyperphosphorylated tau, which affects cognition and behaviour. Many studies have demonstrated the link between CTE and concussion, but these new findings could be a crucial step forward in the development of a preventative treatment.
The study, conducted by Professor Bob Vink and his colleagues from the University of South Australia, demonstrates how repeated concussions can cause CTE and how it can be blocked using a specially developed drug.
Head injuries in sports and conflict
The research has the potential to significantly impact the lives of athletes, such as boxers and footballers, who play contact sports, as well as military veterans sustaining head injuries in conflict.
The team of researchers from Adelaide, Melbourne, and the United States say the brain releases a neurotransmitter called substance P in the event of a head injury, causing abnormal amounts of the tau protein to collect inside neurons.
Professor Vink said: “Tau protein tangles are a feature of CTE, which reportedly leads to memory problems, confusion, personality changes, aggression, depression, and suicidal thinking.
“Our research shows that by blocking substance P with a specific drug, we can prevent the tau protein tangles from developing in the brain and causing neurological problems.”
The treatment was successfully tested in animal models, giving hope that CTE can be prevented in humans.
Professor Vink says the next step is human clinical trials, but that could take several years given that currently CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem.