CTE found in teenage brains by B.U. team

WESTBROUGH, MA January 18, 2018 The scientists studying the damaged brains of older athletes have had the opportunity to study brain damage in athletes who died from other causes.  In 4 such cases, there was evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that was not commensurate with the degree of brain trauma that was observed during their athletic careers according to Felice Freyer of the Boston Globe. This recent study was published in the journal Brain illustrates that the onset of CTE may be closer to onset of brain injury than first thought not much later in life.
“The report, published Thursday in the journal Brain, also provides what Goldstein called “the best evidence to date” supporting the theory that CTE is caused not just by concussions, but rather by any blow to the head, including mild impacts. Instead of diagnosing and responding to concussions, he said, coaches would do better to protect children from all hits to the head.” Felice Freyer – Boston Globe 1-8-18
The possibility of younger athletes developing CTE and the symptoms associated with this progressive disease is quite worrisome especially to parents.  It was always thought that CTE would develop later in life if at all. With the prospects of the disease having a much earlier onset the cost of CTE over a lifetime is incalculable in terms of medical costs and neuropsychological sequelae that may evolve in time. The true impact of this and the consequence for repeated, subclinical blows to the head is only now becoming clear.
Like dementia of the Alzheimer’s type the build up of tau protein underlies the changes associated with CTE. “Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a condition bringing forth progressive tauopathy that occurs as a consequence of repetitive mild traumatic brain injury. We analysed post-mortem brains obtained from a cohort of 85 subjects with histories of repetitive mild traumatic brain injury and found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in 68 subjects: all males, ranging in age from 17 to 98 years (mean 59.5 years), including 64 athletes, 21 military veterans (86% of whom were also athletes) and one individual who engaged in self-injurious head banging behavior” according to the journal Brain. McKee, A. et. al. 2017

McKee, A. et. al. (2017) The spectrum of disease in chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Brain, Volume 136, Issue 1, 1 January 2013, Pages 43–64, https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/aws307
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Brain and Behavior: B.U. scientist says Aaron Hernandez had CTE

Westborough, MA November 18, 2017 The NFL has some explaining to do. Why are former athletes killing themselves and in some cases other people? As students studying the brain it was something special when you could make a correlation between an identified brain lesion and the behavior you are seeing.  I was in China in early November 2017 at a conference on RNA targeted therapy for cancer.  As the non-scientist in the group I was referred to as the clinician who saw the phenotype rather than the genotype – referring to the innumerable genetic underpinnings of cellular biology and changing science of modified nucleotides.  I understood this to have some meaningful interest to the faculty that consisted of 3 prior Nobel laureates and leading scientists in RNA targeted therapy.  So after sitting through hours of presentations I realize the importance of not making a rush to judgment about the cause of some predicted outcome. As a neuropsychologist we are asked to make assumptions about brain integrity after CNS infarcts and make educated predictions about the functional implication of focal lesions in brain.
Recently the scientists at Boston University announced the results of the post-mortem analysis of the brain of Aaron Hernandez, former N.E. Patriots receiver and convicted murderer.  Hernandez had his conviction expunged after he died while his case was on appeal. The 27-year old brain was highly suggestive of having the tell tale signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE thought to be the result of repeated concussions and now realized as the result of hundreds – perhaps thousands of sub-concussive blows to the head that accumulate over time.  Hernandez’s brain was the youngest of the donated brains to be identified with advanced CTE. Hernandez played football for 17 years starting when he was a young boy. The question remains did the brain damage that was identified in the post-mortem analysis cause behavior change in Hernandez and could the murder of Odin Lloyd be attributed to the build up of dangerous tau protein in his brain?
“While no one can prove a causal link between Hernandez’s brain damage and his actions, there is little dispute that he displayed CTE symptoms associated with behavioral problems, such as aggressiveness, explosiveness, impulsivity, and suicide.”
Boston Globe Bob Hohler November 9, 2017
By history Aaron Hernandez was an angry, impulsive and violent teenager that his mother reported began when his father died suddenly. Coupled with this was a biological proclivity toward degenerative brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease and CTE.  Both are diagnosed only after the death of the victim. We know that brain-behavior relationships exist from research in stroke and traumatic brain injury where focal injuries result in specific and expected changes in behavior.  These often result from a disconnection between functional centers of the brain including limbic structures that link centers for emotional regulation and the frontal system that exerts inhibitory control over those emotions. The athlete’s who have donated their brain’s upon their death have almost universally exhibited changes in behavior including poor impulse control, depression, and anger.

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BU Medical School and WCVB images 2017

Clock of the Week

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Dr. Michael Sefton at Boston Museum of Fine Arts
WESTBOROUGH, MA September 15, 2017  Much has been published about the utility of the clock drawing in making preliminary assumptions about the cognitive health of an individual who may be referred for neuropsychological assessment.  I use it all the time and those of you who have submitted clocks for publication here agree with my assumptions.  The photograph at the left was taken at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts by a colleague Dr. David Kent, a neuropsychologist from Worcester, MA. There are several posts that identify some of the literature behind the assumptions I make about clock drawing and cognition.  Here is another link: Clocks and cognition

 

 

Click and see the interesting “Clock of the week

Construction and Self-monitoring

WESTBOROUGH, MA August 6, 2017 Self-monitoring refers to the capacity to observe one’s own behavior in real time. It is easy to see when someone lacks this important neurocognitive feature. Walk into any middle school and there will be hundreds of boys who act and behave without forethought.  Self-monitoring is a higher-order function that sets us apart from other species – even primates and is thought to mature in the second or third decade of life. It is possible to lose the ability to watch and adjust behavior such as with traumatic brain injury involving frontal lobe structures and in disorders of cognition such as dementia.  How is it possible to lose appreciation for the organization of the task (see drawing on left) and fail to notice one’s errors?
The bicycle task requires a rudimentary capacity to envision the bike and draw it from the image one has in his head.  It requires conceptualization, motor control and visual motor integration for success.  The task is age old – like the clocks frequently featured in these pages. Self-monitoring is a prerequisite for social pragmatics – a fancy term for acting your age. In some cases the failure in self-monitoring results in errors in behavior that can become socially debilitating – especially when the patient demonstrates an indifference to his limitations and does not respond to redirection and feedback.  The task of constructing a bicycle is a screening for higher order deficits.  Like the clock drawing it requires planning, organization, even mechanical awareness.  Muriel Lezak says that regardless of lesion the task requires judgment, organization, conceptual integration, and accurate self-appraisal.  Those with defective self-monitoring often miss important features and omit crucial parts of the bicycle’s mechanism like pedals, chain or both (Lezak, 1995)

 

 

“The capacity to self-monitor and modify one’s behavior is required in an open society or the lack of order would result in people being oblivious to each other and indifferent toward their personal effect on social and interpersonal relationships”    Michael Sefton 2017
In the first bike drawing the patient constructed the bicycle as asked but became confused very quickly.  the two objects extending out from the left and right are wheels that were drawn after I had asked “how does it work?” Interestingly one of the scoring criteria are the correct placement of spokes on the wheels. There are no spokes on the wheels of the second and third drawings. In some cases the concept of perseveration is revealing of decreased self-monitoring.  In a published blog the concept is described.  It is the process of repeating the same response over and over without awareness.

Lezak, M. Neuropsychological Assessment – Third Edition. Oxford Press, 1995.
Sefton, M. (2016) Perseveration, severation, eration, ation, blog post, taken August 8, 2017.

The Trial and Error Associated with Cognitive Decline

Westborough, MA May 25, 2017 Cognitive changes are common in patients with dementia. They become increasingly problematic with the disease progression. Some people suffering with dementia have difficulty with even the most basic activity of daily living like dressing themself.  Things taken for granted like following directions become a chore as the progression of dementia effects individuals who suffer with the disease.  This places a great burden on caregivers who must take over those important functions of daily life.
The clock drawing has been a feature on my blog for several years.  It is fun to see people work through the task.  Most people complete the task effortlessly.  Some are a bit defensive because it seems like such a benign request – “draw a clock…” and I often get “I am not an artist…” in anticipation of failure.  I have published over a dozen posts about the clock drawing as a measure of cognitive functioning.  Patient with dementia often experience a slow cognitive decline whereby even tasks like constructing a clock become a challenge.

The clocks drawn in this post reflect the effort of a person of 89-years of age who tried very hard to get it right.  She had enough preservation of her self- monitoring
Dementia_Clock female 89 Scan
3 Clocks drawn in succession by 89-year old female with hypoxia and underlying dementia of Alzheimer’s type – note size in centimeters 

that she could tell something was wrong.  As you can see the left most circle was the first attempt.  It was too small according to the patient and she wanted to try again.  The middle clock was her next attempt and shows her disorganization and minimal change in the size of the drawing – approximately 3 centimeters in size. In the center of the drawing there are 2 hands that roughly represent the time 11:10.  She told me she needed more space to place the hands so that they could be clearly read and offered to try a third time.  On the right is her final attempt.  There are two hands (to the right of the number 9 and a second pointing to the number 2). As you can see the circle is only 2 cm in size and was a modest improvement over the first two attempts.
She had fun drawing the clock and did not feel as though she had failed the task. I was encouraging and praised her for staying with the task. At some point she had lost her capacity to plan and execute her visual motor function of crafting the circle.  Each attempt was made with the goal of drawing a larger circle. This fine woman was still capable of doing many of her activities of daily living and enjoying her friends and family.  She was not at all upset that I had been asked to help with her care.
Dementia requires family support and can be costly to those in need of care.  The risk of caregiver fatigue exists in all families.  As much as possible, I enourage people to allow the patient to work toward completing their own self-care unless there are risks such as falling due to poor balance. This requires herculean patience and sensitivity because there is often a degree of “awareness” of the cognitive changes experienced by the patient himself. Preserved dignity and sense of independence go a long way toward quality of life in the latter stages of dementia.  Most spouses will do whatever it takes to support a loved one with whom they have shared 50 or more years of marriage and experience the decline in functioning as both a personal failure and a heart breaking loss.

The cumulative impact of dementia on caregivers

dementia-symptoms-and-brain changesWESTBOROUGH, MA January 20, 2015  The impact of dementia is no greater than on those who remain behind to care for those afflicted with dementia.  Typically, this may be a singular spouse who has chosen to care for their loved one through the insideous stages of dementia.  Often in direct opposition to adult children, who may be intellectually dispassionate about what should or should not be done for the affected parent. This can take an enormous toll on the health of the surviving spouse who is often filled with guilt and sadness as they witness their life partner slowly fade away alone and often without substantive, hands on support.  No greater sense of despair and futility exists as when the declining husband or wife can no longer remember a devoted caregiver or the memory of a shared life. Even worse is the tangle of doubt over what more can be done. Their futility is painful to see for those who provide care for the patients and the caregivers.

Dementia and Aging

Dementia is a disease that most people have heard something about.  There are several variants of the disease including Alzheimer’s, Lewy Body, frontotemporal, and vascular dementia just to name a few of those more prevalent.  Most know the cluster of functional changes that occur with the slow but progressive loss of neurocognitive function that often starts deep within the brain in the 6th or 7th decade of life.  It starts with something as benign as forgetting a conversation after just a few minutes or being momentarily lost in a familiar place in town.  As the condition progresses, patients are rendered more forgetful, lose appreciation for tasks like paying bills, personal hygiene, eventually unable to recognize loved ones and care for their own basic needs.  As with any life changing sign of debility it is often difficult to admit and usually more difficult to address.  Denial is a common first reaction when dementia is suspected.  And feared.

There are many myths associated dementia that are worth pointing out.  First, old age and dementia are not synonymous.  Patients always say to me “what do you expect I am 82 years old” when I first begin the assessment process.  Research according to the APA, has shown in the right environment memory should not fail solely on the basis of age.  Next, there are many conditions that mimic dementia but are fully treatable if addressed sooner rather than later.  Arguably, depression, for example, often mimics dementia because of the associated change in attention memory, and behavior.  It is far more prevalent than Alzheimer’s and has a very high rate of treatment success.  The third myth is that there is nothing that can be done to stave off the mental inopertivity of senility. Wrong. But one needs to take responsibility for personal well-being long before the grip of dementia has begun unraveling one’s neurocognitive infrastructure.  This includes regular exercise, mental stimulation, nutritional balance, and regular social interaction.  It would not hurt to continue working or volunteering just to keep yourself in physical and cognitive shape. And finally, dementia is not life’s inevitable end point – whatever the age.  80 is the new 70 – people are living longer.  There are currently 96,000 centenarians in the United States.  In 30 years there will be over one million people who are over the age of 100.

Caregiver distress

Caregivers of dementia sufferers themselves suffer greatly.  The daily care of someone with dementia drains the emotional reserve needed to replenish the “self” unless the depleted caregiver can find a healthy, restorative balance.  The surviving spouse is sometimes under great stress to keep a loved one in his home – out of a nursing home. They anguish with each dying day in witness of a withering of human spirit – once father.  The decision to admit one’s spouse to a dementia care facility conjures up images of the locked wards, vitriolic nurses, and exploitive, uncaring staff – another myth germinated in the guilt and self-recrimination of husbands and wives, and families who have forever tried and failed to slow the disease.  Signs of caregiver burnout include sleep disturbance, irritability, being on edge, anxiety, unrecognized anger, and personal neglect.  Eventually, the stress associated with being a caregiver will errode whatever well-being may be left unless supoprt and balance can be found. No easy task – especially when a selfless spouse wants only to have things the way they were.

In truth, long-term care facilities are equipped to take care of someone with dementia with a round the clock team of nurses and rehabilitation therapists.  Making the decision to admit the demented family member may be aided by a family physician, knowledgable friend, or trusted therapist. Day treatment programs in many areas around the country provide temporary respite.  They are a good first step in diminishing caregiver fatigue. They offer free time to caregivers for restoration of empathy and the needed emotional refueling that comes from seeing friends, family, or dinner out, or a Sunday mass.

The best way to handle a situation like this is to surround oneself caring friends.  It is okay to talk about how difficult it may have become.  It is not a betrayal to feel angry inside or to reach out to family for respite care.  The financial concern over caring for a patient with dementia is very real.  It is expensive care to get and not readily available across the country or elsewhere.  Some hospitals or clinics offer free dementia care workshops or support groups that can provide helpful information and knowledge that you are not alone.  Learn what services are available in your area.  Talk to people and restore your self and believe that you are worthy of a rest – if even a short one.

REFERENCE: APA (2015) http://www.apa.org/pi/aging/ memory-and-aging.pdf. Taken 1-18-2015.