Scientists Link Genetics to Brain Injury

Does brain injury run in the family?

It’s a question we’ll likely hear more often after scientists link genes and susceptibility to brain injury.

“Until now, all the attention has been paid to how hard and how often you get hit,” said Thomas McAllister, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the Indiana University School of Medicine. “No doubt that’s important. But it’s also becoming clear that it’s probably an interaction between the injury and the genetics of the person being injured.”

The findings are timely as another new study has found that concussion diagnosis doubled in young athletes from 2005 to 2012. It’s a reality causing parents to carefully consider whether to permit their kids to play contact sports.

The decision could be made easier if parents knew their kids’ genetic predisposition to head injury. Those at greater risk might be better off swimming or running track rather than suiting up to play hockey or football.

Scientists hope that one day a simple blood test will be able to identify those genetically predisposed to brain injury.

It’s information helpful not just in sports, but also in the military. The Pentagon estimates that 294,000 U.S. troops have suffered a brain injury since 2000. What if the Pentagon could test for those genetically predisposed to brain injury? Officials would be able to make more informed decisions about who to deploy, saving the permanent suffering and disease of countless servicemen and women.

But some say we shouldn’t blame concussions on family history just yet.

Vassilis Koliatsos, a neurologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, says many athletes and soldiers get hit on the head and recover without developing any kind of degenerative brain disease. He says the interplay between genes and injury is hard to nail down, and that lasting brain damage could be more attributed to someone’s personality rather than genetic code. It’s not only genes, Koliatsos says, but also experience.

Koliatsos says we’re better off focusing on injury prevention and on blood tests that diagnose concussions using biomarkers, and that we should follow simple rules to prevent long-term brain injury. If you’ve had one concussion, make sure you fully recover before risking another. And if you’ve had too many concussions, you must eliminate the risk of further concussions.

“It’s common sense,” says Koliatsos.

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Michael Slater, K.C.
Michael Slater K.C. is the founding partner of Slater Vecchio. The majority of his practice is confined to traumatic brain injury (TBI) and spinal cord injury cases.