Neuroinflammation and brain atrophy in former NFL players: An in vivo multimodal imaging pilot study

Jennifer M. Coughlin, Yuchuan Wang, Cynthia A. Munro, Shuangchao Ma, Chen Yue, Shaojie Chen, Raag Airan, Pearl K. Kim, Ashley V. Adams, Cinthya Garcia, Cecilia Higgs, Haris I. Sair, Akira Sawa, Gwenn Smith, Constantine G. Lyketsos, Brian Caffo, Michael Kassiou, Tomas R. Guilarte, Martin G. Pomper

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

126 Scopus citations


There are growing concerns about potential delayed, neuropsychiatric consequences (e.g, cognitive decline, mood or anxiety disorders) of sports-related traumatic brain injury (TBI). Autopsy studies of brains from a limited number of former athletes have described characteristic, pathologic changes of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) leading to questions about the relationship between these pathologic and the neuropsychiatric disturbances seen in former athletes. Research in this area will depend on in vivo methods that characterize molecular changes in the brain, linking CTE and other sports-related pathologies with delayed emergence of neuropsychiatric symptoms. In this pilot project we studied former National Football League (NFL) players using new neuroimaging techniques and clinical measures of cognitive functioning. We hypothesized that former NFL players would show molecular and structural changes in medial temporal and parietal lobe structures as well as specific cognitive deficits, namely those of verbal learning and memory. We observed a significant increase in binding of [11C]DPA-713 to the translocator protein (TSPO), a marker of brain injury and repair, in several brain regions, such as the supramarginal gyrus and right amygdala, in 9 former NFL players compared to 9 age-matched, healthy controls. We also observed significant atrophy of the right hippocampus. Finally, we report that these same former players had varied performance on a test of verbal learning and memory, suggesting that these molecular and pathologic changes may play a role in cognitive decline. These results suggest that localized brain injury and repair, indicated by increased [11C]DPA-713 binding to TSPO, may be linked to history of NFL play. [11C]DPA-713 PET is a promising new tool that can be used in future study design to examine further the relationship between TSPO expression in brain injury and repair, selective regional brain atrophy, and the potential link to deficits in verbal learning and memory after NFL play.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)58-65
Number of pages8
JournalNeurobiology of Disease
StatePublished - Feb 1 2015


  • Microglia
  • Mild traumatic brain injury
  • Molecular neuroimaging
  • Neuroinflammation
  • Translocator protein

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology


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