Touchdown longevity: NFL brain injuries inform aging field

RAADfest 2021: Neuroscientist Kristen Willeumier to show how brain trauma rehabilitation strategies can feed into longevity and regenerative medicine.

With only one day to go until RAADfest 2021, today we bring you insights from another of the fascinating speakers who will be presenting at the annual conference of the Coalition for Radical Life Extension. Neuroscientist Dr Kristen Willeumier will share her experiences using clinical interventions on professional American football players with brain trauma, and how the results can benefit the longevity field.

Longevity.Technology: The former NFL players were treated using of multiple interventions, ranging from dietary modifications and nutrient support to neurofeedback and hyperbaric oxygen therapy. We caught up with Willeumier to explore her findings and the implications for longevity.

Kristen Willeumier
Dr Kristen Willeumier

In 2009, after working in the field of neurodegenerative disease in the Department of Neurology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Willeumier joined the Amen Clinics as its director of research. Amen specialises in psychiatry and brain health, using an advanced technique called single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) imaging, which measures blood flow and activity in the brain.

“There are nine Amen Clinics throughout the United States, which treat 4,000 patients monthly,” says Willeumier. “They have one of the largest brain SPECT imaging databases, with more than 180,000 scans.”

Studying brain trauma in NFL players

Early in her tenure at Amen, Willeumier conducted a large brain imaging study in living NFL players to determine whether playing the sport caused long term brain damage.

“Now in 2021, we know that playing football can lead to a progressive degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” she says. “The cellular changes that occur from the cumulative exposure to repetitive subconcussive impacts the players are taking may not result in cognitive symptoms until 5, 10 or 15 years after retirement.

“This is not unlike a neurodegenerative disease in the normal population, where the damage is happening at the cellular level, one to two decades before people have symptoms.”

Willeumier explains that the value of advanced brain imaging means that it is possible to see if there are any malfunctions in the way certain areas of the brain are communicating with another.

“Through functional imaging we can see if there are perfusion deficits in areas of the brain that we can correct,” she adds. “And those deficits may allow us to make changes to the brain at a time when the brain is still plastic and amenable to changes.

“The beauty of the work with the football players is that we have shown we could reverse brain damage in these players, who have taken an extraordinary amount of damage to the brain, through both linear and rotational forces.”

Neuroimaging in precision medicine

Early detection and treatment is the key to preserving brain health, says Willeumier, who says it’s a lot harder to correct things once people start losing brain volume.

“One of the things I love about the longevity community is that they are very proactive about their health. If we want to experience vibrant health and longevity to 100 and beyond, we need to continue educating people on how to mitigate changes happening in the brain that occur as a result of natural aging.

“Having seen thousands of brain images, perfusion deficits are more common than people may be aware of. There are many ways to restore healthy blood flow to the brain that can be accomplished through practical lifestyle strategies. We need to get radically empowered to take care of our brain now, no matter what age we are.”

Willeumier believes that her ability to use advanced neuroimaging tools in a clinical environment provided a broader perspective on neurodegeneration and a unique ability to assess the efficacy of interventions on a case-by-case basis.

“At RAADfest I’ll be talking about the multiple interventions that we used in a precision medicine approach that were successful in supporting brain health,” she says. “I will discuss nutritional and dietary interventions which are powerful neuroprotective strategies when practiced consistently. Some nutraceuticals were also extremely effective, for example, omega three fatty acids, which were used, not only for their anti-inflammatory properties, but also to support healthy brain volume and stabilize mood.”

In her day-to-day work at the clinic, Willeumier was also able to assess interventions ranging from IV therapies to hyperbaric oxygen therapies, which she says were used to help mitigate cognitive issues.

Act early to preserve brain health

By using brain imaging as part of a precision medicine approach, Willeumier is confident that she can “move the needle” and improve a patient’s brain health.

“Precision medicine is the future,” she says. “We are seeing an expansion in wearable technology to capture health metrics in addition to biomarker testing and genetic testing – I’m an advocate for getting a thorough and complete assessment of your health status.”

“Being able to visualize changes in the brain using neuroimaging takes a brain health assessment to a new level. This is because people stay compliant when you can demonstrate an intervention’s efficacy and, when it comes to maintaining your long-term brain health, compliance is essential.”

Willeumier says that people who are at greater risk for a degenerative disease should assess their cognitive health annually, as there may be strategies that help to prevent or delay the onset.

“People say that you can’t rehabilitate brain function, and that we are born with a set number of neurons,” she adds. “Yes, after the age of 40 brain volume begins to decline, yet we also know that there are centenarians and supercentenarians who are able to maintain cognitive function as they age. This is because the brain has the capacity for neurogenesis and synaptogenesis throughout the lifespan.”

While Willeumier acknowledges that people might think that her work with NFL players isn’t relevant for them, she stresses that everyone can benefit from it.

“If we can restore a football player’s brain function, then we can do it for most people – you just don’t want to wait until you have a cognitive issue,” she says. “I want to help people start thinking about the link between the behaviours they’re doing and how they impact brain structure and function, and to get them to care more about their brain health.”

RAADfest 2021 starts tomorrow and continues throughout the weekend. Register to attend here!

Image credits: Keith Johnston from Pixabay and Dr Kristen Willeumier