New drug may stop dementia onset in athletes, soldiers who suffer head injuries

ADELAIDE, Australia — In recent years, the aftermath of suffering a concussion during sports like boxing and football have become a source of tremendous controversy. Now that the public is more aware about how head injuries can lead to dementia later in life, there have been more and more calls for organizations to better protect athletes from traumatic brain injuries. With that in mind, researchers from the United States and Australia say they’ve developed a drug that can stop the onset of dementia following repeated head injuries.

Simply put, a concussion is the result of a bump, blow, or some other injury to the head which causes the brain to bounce around inside the skull. Previous studies have revealed that these types of injuries have a strong connection to developing neurogenerative diseases, such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

CTE has become synonymous with the NFL over the last few years, but this fatal brain disease can affect anyone who suffers repeated blows to the head. Specifically, the disease is caused by a buildup of a protein called hyperphosphorylated tau, which impacts cognitive function and behavior.

Blocking the trigger for CTE

brain concussion
The red area shows where the brain is inflamed after concussion. (Credit:
University of South Australia)

In the new report, researchers from the University of South Australia discovered that the brain releases a neurotransmitter called substance P after a head injury. This reaction to a possible concussion causes an abnormal amount of the unhealthy protein to collect inside the brain’s neurons.

“Tau protein tangles are a feature of CTE, which reportedly leads to memory problems, confusion, personality changes, aggression, depression and suicidal thinking,” says UniSA Emeritus Professor Bob Vink in a university release.

“Our research shows that by blocking substance P with a specific drug, we can prevent the tau protein tangles from developing in the brain and causing neurological problems.”

Prof. Vink and the team add this breakthrough could have significant benefits not only for athletes in all contact sports, but also help soldiers suffering traumatic brain injuries on the battlefield. Study authors report their new treatment successfully prevented substance P buildup in animal test subjects.

Unfortunately, it may take longer for human clinical trials to begin. At the moment, scientists are only able to diagnose a case of CTE while examining a brain after death. However, a recent study in March 2021 discovered that people who suffer just one head injury are 25 percent more likely to develop dementia later on.

The findings appear in the journal Scientific Reports.