Brain Seems to Age Faster in Head Injury Patients
Serious head injuries can have a multitude of long-term effects and, according to a new study, may even speed up the ageing process in the brain. The findings show that those who have suffered brain injuries are likely to prematurely develop changes in brain structure resembling those seen in older people.
Estimating Brain Age
The study, conducted at Imperial College London, involved analysing brain scans from more than 1,500 healthy people to develop a computer program that could predict a person’s age from their brain scan. The researchers then used the program to estimate the “brain age” of 113 healthy people and 99 patients who had suffered traumatic brain injuries, the scans being taken between one month and 46 years after their injuries.
They found that the brain injury patients were estimated to be, on average, five years older than their real age, while the average difference between predicted age and real age for the healthy controls was zero. The higher estimates were generally linked to cognitive impairments, such as poor memory and slow reaction times.
Brain Injury’s Long-Term Impact
Study leader Dr James Cole, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London, says that there was evidence that such changes in brain structure did not always occur with the injury – they were often a result of ongoing biological processes, similar to those which are typical when ageing. This suggests that these processes were sped up by the head injuries.
“Traumatic brain injury is not a static event,” he explains. “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.”
Following this study, the team believe that the age prediction model could be used to screen outwardly healthy people and catch indicators of future cognitive impairments as early on as possible.
“We want to do a study where we use the program to estimate the brain age in healthy people, then see if the ones with ‘old brains’ are more likely to get neurodegenerative diseases,” says Dr Cole.” If it works, we could use it to identify people at high risk, enrol them in trials and potentially prescribe treatments that might stave off the disease.”
“Your chronological age is not necessarily the best indicator of your health or how much longer you will live,” he stresses. “There is a lot of interest in finding biomarkers of ageing that can be used to measure a certain aspect of your health and predict future problems.”