Protein tangles linked with dementia in patients with single head injury

  • A study by a research team from Imperial College, London have observed tau clumps in the brains of patients who have sustained a single but severe head injury.
  • Unlike other studies that have seen tau tangles in patients during post-mortem examinations, this study marks the first time that such clumps of protein are seen in living patients.
  • Tau tangles, which form when an individual suffers a head injury, are often linked to Alzheimer’s and dementia.

For the first time, scientists have envisaged protein ‘tangles’ to be related to dementia in the brains of patients who have experienced a single head injury.

Researchers from Imperial College Dementia Research Institute in London and the University of Glasgow have discovered that some of the 21 patients they have studied who had moderate to severe head injuries from at least 18 years earlier, had clumps of protein called tau tangles in their brains. They compared their data to the 11 healthy individuals who had not sustained a head injury. All patients were recruited from the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow and from Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust.

Such findings are believed by the team to potentially hasten the development of treatments that can help breakdown tau tangles, facilitating medics to select patients who can benefit at the same time monitor protein levels.

Normally, tau functions as a type of scaffolding supporting nerve cells in the brain. However, when brains cells are damaged during a head injury, the protein may form tangles. Tau tangles are typically related to Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, and strongly linked to progressive nerve damage.

For years, scientists have known that repeated head injury can cause neurodegeneration and dementia in later life, with likely associations to a brain condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

But the new study is the first time that scientists have observed protein clumps in living patients who have sustained a single head injury, and not from patients in post-mortem examinations, according to study author Dr. Nikos Gorgoraptis of Imperial’s Department of Brain Sciences.

To determine the amount of tau proteins in the brains of head injury patients, a PET scan combined with a substance called flortaucipir that binds to tau protein was used by the study.

Generally, results showed that patients who experienced a head injury had more chances of developing tau tangles as well as higher nerve damage levels especially in the white matter region of the brain, compared to the healthy individuals who had no tau clumps.

Interestingly though, the patients with higher amounts of tau tangles did not automatically have any reduction in brain function, like memory problems, compared to patients with fewer tangles.

However, it takes years for these tangles to develop before a person develops memory loss symptoms, says Dr. Gorgoraptis adding that there are still so many questions to answer about the tau tangles and brain damage.

The findings are published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Source: Medical Xpress

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