Researchers led by the University of South Australia have identified a new drug that may be able to help prevent athletes from developing dementia following repeated head injuries.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive and fatal brain disease linked to the accumulation of a protein known as hyperphosphorylated tau. The build-up of this protein in the brain affects cognition and behavior. The condition is a form of head injury-associated dementia.
As a rationale for the development of the new drug, the researchers say that after a head injury, the brain releases a neurotransmitter called substance P. This neurotransmitter is known to modulate pain perception. It also plays a role in the secondary injury process after traumatic brain injury, particularly in neuroinflammation, increased blood-brain barrier permeability and edema formation, which has been linked to increased intracranial pressure.
In the case of CTE, substance P has also been linked to increased amounts of tau protein that collect inside neurons. This build-up leads to memory problems, confusion, changes in personality, aggressive behavior, depressive mood and suicidal thoughts.
For the current study, the researchers used a drug known as a Neurokinin-1 (NK-1) receptor antagonist to block substance P in animal models of CTE. In doing so, they were able to prevent tau protein tangles from developing in the brain and leading to neurological problems.
The researchers now hope that CTE could be prevented via the same mechanism in humans. Bob Vink, the lead author of the study, now hopes to progress the treatment into human clinical trials, where it may be able to aid athletes who play contact sports including boxers and footballers, as well as military veterans who sustain head injuries during conflict. He said however that this may take several years as currently, CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem.