New research from Western University links the symptoms of repeated head injuries and a degenerative neurological disorder.
The research will be presented at Western University's See the Line symposium on Wednesday by Dr. Michael Strong, the dean of the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry and a leading researcher in the field of Lou Gehrig's disease.
"We need to inform people about concussions and the fact that it doesn't just affect elite athletes. We need to tell people, the coaches, parents, kids, that there's a lot of work being done around head injury," Strong said. "There is a lot of research that's being done, and people tend to think it's being done elsewhere, but much of it is being done right here."
Strong's lab works on studying Lou Gehrig's disease, also known as ALS.
ALS is a neurodegenerative disorder which has no cure.
Strong and his research team have used findings from Boston researcher Dr. Ann McKee, who has studied the brains of athletes for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
CTE is also a degenerative brain disease, often found in athletes who have had repetitive blows to the head. Strong's team has found startling similarities in the cellular structure of people with ALS and CTE.
"What's really critical is that the protein we work with in our research on Lou Gehrig's disease and the dementia that can occur, and the protein of patients with CTE is exactly the same," Strong said.
Researchers have identified the same protein and mutation in both disorders.
"In cell culture, we've been able to take that protein, and now we have a series of drugs that will reverse the process. We have these drugs and we can use them in cell culture. Now we need to take them to animal studies."
That could mean that Strong's ALS research could help patients who have CTE.
'Get out there; be safe'
Concussion research and training have come a long way in the last few decades, Strong said.
Gone should be the days when football or hockey players who take a hit to the head are pressured to get back in the game. Instead, coaches, players and parents are informed about the dangers of concussions, and the importance of making a slow comeback.
"I played football in high school and I'd go back and play it again," said Strong. "Kids should be athletically active, they should be involved in team sports. The price of not being involved is too high."
But getting out on the field and making sure you're being safe is critical, he added.
"Get out there, do your sports, but make sure the kids are safe," Strong said.
Conference brings athletes, researchers together
See the Line is a 10-year project to educate athletes, coaches, parents and the broader community about concussions.
The conference runs from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday at Western University.
The morning is reserved for health care professionals and medical students, and features presentations about the consequences of concussions and their treatment.
The afternoon, beginning at 1 p.m., features speakers including Strong, gold medal-winning hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser — as well as other researchers and former players.