A new MRI diagnostic approach was reportedly used to help pinpoint significant damage to the blood-brain barrier (BBB) of professional football players after “unreported” trauma or mild concussions.

In a news release from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), Alon Friendman, professor and discoverer of the new diagnostic, states, “Until now, there wasn’t a diagnostic capability to identify mild brain injury early after the trauma. In the NFL, other professional sports, and especially school sports, concern has grown about the long-term neuropsychiatric consequences of repeated mild Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI) and specifically sports-related concussive and subconcussive head impacts.”

The study appears in JAMA Neurology and was published by researchers at BGU and Soroka University Medical Center. The release notes that the study outlines a new diagnostic approach using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for detection and localization of vascular and blood-brain barrier breakdown in football players.

The goal of the study hinged on using the new method to visualize the extent and location of BBB dysfunction in football players using Dynamic Contrast-Enhanced Magnetic Resonance Imaging (DCE-MRI) on a Phillips 3-T Ingenia, the researchers say.

The study encompassed 16 football players from Israel’s professional football team, Black Swarm, as well as 13 track and field athletes from Ben-Gurion University who served as controls. All the participants underwent the newly developed MRI-based diagnostic, according to the release. The DCE-MRIs were given between games during the season and revealed significant damage.

The results suggest 40% of the examined football players with unreported concussions had evidence of brain regions with abnormal vasculature, compared to 8.3% of the control athletes.

Friedman points out the group of 29 volunteers was clearly separated into an intact-BBB group and a pathological-BBB group.

“This showed a clear association between football and increased risk for BBB pathology that we couldn’t see before. In addition, high-BBB permeability was found in six players and in only one athlete from the control group,” Friedman says.

Friedman adds that not all players exhibited pathology. This may suggest that repeated, mild concussive events might impact some players differently than others. This level of diagnosis, Friedman notes, can provide the basis of more rational decision-making on “return to play” for professionals as well as amateurs of any age.

The release reports that prior research at the BGU Laboratory of Experimental Neurosurgery has indicated the key role that vascular pathology, and specifically dysfunction of the BBB, plays in brain dysfunction and degeneration. It may also be an underlying cause of neurodegenerative complications post-brain injury.

To this end, medical researchers, including Friedman’s group, are seeking treatments that will target the BBB and facilitate its repair to pave the way for prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and other brain-related diseases.

“We believe that with continued support, [Professor] Friedman and the DCE-MRI can help render more accurate and informed decisions by athletes and others exposed to mild concussions about when to resume activities,” says Doron Krakow, AABGU executive vice president.

[Source: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev]