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Boston researchers receive grants to study concussions

Two Boston researchers are among a list of scientists nationwide who have been awarded grants to study the effects of repeated head injuries in a new initiative by the federal government and the National Football League to better understand these injuries and improve the diagnosis of concussions.

Traumatic brain injuries are a major public health problem that affects all age groups and is the leading cause of death in young adults, according to the National Institutes of Health.

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Concern has been raised recently about the potential long-term effects of repeated concussions, particularly in those most at risk: young athletes and those engaged in professions associated with frequent head injury, including men and women in the military. Current tests cannot reliably identify concussions, and there is no way to predict who will recover quickly, who will suffer long-term symptoms, and which few individuals will develop a progressive brain degeneration, similar to Alzheimer’s disease, called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

A team of researchers, lead by Dr. Ann McKee, of Boston University School of Medicine and the US Department of Veterans Affairs, will receive $6 million to expand their research of CTE.

Diagnosis of the disease can only be made by examining the brain after death. McKee’s team hopes to define a clear set of criteria that will help scientists distinguish the disease from other similar illnesses, including Alzheimer’s, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, during an autopsy.

Once these characteristics have been identified in brain tissue, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Washington University in St. Louis aim to correlate them with brain scans to identify features that might some day be used to diagnose CTE in living patients.

Another team of scientists at Mass. General will share a total of $2 million with researchers working on five other pilot projects. The Mass General team will study the cascade of molecular changes in the brain that are believed to happen as a result of head injuries. Lead investigator Dr. Michael Whalen and his team plan to use mice to determine whether molecular changes in the brain after a head injury can also be pinpointed in blood samples. This may help identify potential methods for detecting and treating concussions.

Kay Lazar can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.
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