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Tuchfarber: Traumatic brain injury research enters a new frontier

Lee Tuchfarber
Special to The Aspen Times
Lee Tuchfarber, CEO at Renew Senior Communities.

Earlier this year I was sitting in the office of Dr. Briony Catlow, executive director of the Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging at Denver University, surrounded by some of Colorado’s top brain researchers and Alzhemier’s advocates. 

Dr. Daniel Paredes, neurochemist at the Knoebel Institute, was excitedly scribbling diagrams and math onto the office window like John Forbes Nash in the movie, “A Brilliant Mind.” He was showing us how in the future we will detect dementia years before symptoms develop from a tiny blood sample using artificial intelligence and a special sensor he has developed.

I was in awe that I had a front row seat to the development of such a potentially powerful technology. I was also filled with hope.



My personal journey to overcome troubling health problems lead me to a deep interest in health-care sciences and creating relationships with experts from around the world who study everything from sleep and exercise to nutrition and dementia. I am honored to be moderating the Brain Injury and Health Panel next month as part of The Longevity Project.

Punch-drunk is a term we’ve heard used to describe the stupor and foggy-headedness associated with a series of heavy blows to the head. Though it is often used in a light-hearted and humorous way, its roots date back to the 1920s, when dementia pugilistica was discovered in boxers. Dementia pugilistica is the serious brain damage caused by repeated traumatic brain injuries (TBI), such as concussions or blows to the head.




In 2002, nearly 75 years after the first diagnosis of dementia pugilistica, National Football League center Michael “Iron Mike” Webster was the first NFL player to be diagnosed with CTE. The movie “Concussion,” released in 2016, tells the story of Nigerian-born pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu who performed the autopsy on Mike Webster. He subsequently discovered the presence of tau proteins forming toxic “tangles” in nerve cells in the brain, which can significantly impair moods and alter cognitive functions, according to Dr. Lotta Granholm- Bentley, professor at the University of Colorado Neurosurgery Department.

For years, the NFL denied the connection between repeated brain injuries and long-term brain damage, but in a 2016 congressional hearing, Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois asked whether “there is a link between football and degenerative brain disorders like CTE” Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for healthy and safety policy, said on the record, “The answer to that is certainly yes.”

The game has changed. While traumatic brain injuries are centuries old, the study of how trauma impacts the brain in the long term is gaining traction across many organizations, including the Federal Interagency Traumatic Brain Injury Research (FITBIR) Informatics System.

“In many ways, traumatic brain injury is both an old science and a very new science,” said Granholm-Bentley, which begs the question of what is on the frontier of TBI research, prevention and treatment.

The work of Granholm-Bentley and her colleagues, including biomarker expert Dr. Aurélie Ledreuxat the University of Colorado, is beginning to shed light on how different molecules in the blood, known as biomarkers, have the potential to help scientists predict if someone is likely to develop a long term cognitive disability or a neurodegenerative disorder like dementia.

The FITBIR database will be able to help scientists define which data should be collected so that useful benchmarks can be established. Granholm-Bentley and Ledreux envision a world not far away when simple biomarker tests can be done in every emergency room giving doctors definitive direction for patients navigating brain recovery.

“After six years, we have some interesting preliminary data that shows that the brain does react even in a very young person,” Granholm-Bentley said. The pathological proteins found in the brain are indicative of what’s going on and whether the brain is trying to heal, she said. “The healing of the brain and the ability of the brain to form new nerve cells and new glia cells reduce as we age, so we already know that brain injuries are worse for older persons. Aging itself leads to low-state inflammation in the brain, so understanding brain injuries when they happen can help us to predict future cognitive impairment.”

We can also thank cancer researchers for pioneering and developing technologies that can translate to degenerative brain application, especially related to the study of exosomes, which are like molecular sacks that hold an array of contents. These sacks are produced by every cell in the body and their contents are rich with materials that can be used for repairing and enhancing the brain. According to Granholm-Bentley, the cutting edge of TBI research may lie in exosome injections to improve the recovery of TBI patients and promote neuroplasticity in the brain.

The good news, according to Granholm-Bentley? She’s a firm believer we can reduce the progression of dementia and long-term effects of brain injury with appropriate lifestyle adjustments.

“The message is simple,” she said. Reduce stress, engage with music, eat lots of antioxidants and anti inflammatory foods and exercise moderately.

There is a chemical answer to why lifestyle change works, she said. “There are good and bad proteins in the brain. For example, tau is essential for normal cells to function properly, but with TBIs and dementia, it increases exponentially and becomes pathological.”

When we increase physical exercise and engage our minds in memory games or listening to music, the levels of a beneficial protein named BDNF increase in the brain, which helps to balance tau. When we don’t have an active lifestyle, tau can get a foothold that exacerbates mental deterioration.

Lee Tuchfarber is the CEO of Renew Senior Communities, LLC. He is a developer, owner and operator of innovative senior living communities. He sits on the boards of the Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging at Denver University and the Neuroscience Innovation Initiative at the University of Colorado. Over the course of his career, he became unimpressed with the traditional approach to senior living and decided to change it.

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