According to a recent study, individuals who have sustained serious head injuries exhibit changes in brain structure that resemble those seen in older people.

During the study, Imperial College London researchers analyzed brain scans from more than 1,500 healthy individuals to develop a computer program designed to predict an individual’s age based upon their brain scan. The researchers then used the program to estimate the “brain age” of 113 more healthy people and 99 patients who had sustained traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). The results indicate brain injury patients were estimated to be around 5 years older on average than their real age.

In a news release issued by the college, Dr James Cole, study leader, department of Medicine at Imperial College London, explains that chronological age is not necessarily the best indicator of health or how much longer an individual might live.

“There is a lot of interest in finding biomarkers of aging that can be used to measure a certain aspect of your health and predict future problems,” Cole says.

The study used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study changes in brain structure. The release notes that researchers used a machine learning algorithm to develop a computer program that could recognize age-related differences in the volume of white matter and grey matter in different parts of the brain.

The model was the used to estimate subjects’ ages based upon their brain scans, according to the release. The study encompassed a total of 99 patients with TBI caused by road accidents, falls or assaults, who experienced persistent neurological issues. Scans were taken between 1 month and 46 years post-injury.

Among healthy controls, the release says, the average difference between predicted age and real age was zero. In TBI patients, the difference was significantly higher, with a bigger discrepancy in patients with more severe injuries. Bigger differences in predicted age were linked to cognitive impairments such as poor memory and slow reaction times.

The release reports that there was also a correlation between time since injury and predicted age difference. This suggests these changes in brain structure do not occur during the injury itself, but instead result from ongoing biological processes, potentially similar to those seen in normal aging, that progress more quickly post-injury.

Cole points out that TBI is not a “static event.”

“It can set off secondary processes, possibly related to inflammation, that can cause more damage in the brain for years afterwards, and may contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia,” Cole notes.

Researchers add that they believe the age prediction model could be applied not just to TBI patients, but might also be useful to screen outwardly healthy people.

The Prediction of brain age suggests accelerated atrophy after traumatic brain injury study appears in the Annals of Neurology, 2015.

The release notes that researchers received funding from the EU Seventh Framework Programme and a National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) professorship for Professor David Sharp. The research was also supported by the NIHR Imperial Biomedical Research Centre.

Photo Credit; Imperial College London

Source: Imperial College London