Genetic markers for concussions

Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist, author and a self-proclaimed “Science Evangelist.” She is the creator of a podcast series called “Science Underground.” she joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss if there are genetic markers for concussions.

TRANSCRIPT

Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist, author, and a self-proclaimed science evangelist.

She is the creator of a podcast series called 'Science Underground.'

She joins me now to discuss if there are genetic markers for concussions.

This is an important topic.

A lot of people have been thinking about it, not just in the context of NFL players, but also now little-league soccer kids and lots of things.

Is there something in us that makes us sort of worse off if we get a concussion?

Well, it's still early on in the research in terms of the genes.

They have been able to identify some things.

The first thing we need to do is, we need to understand what a concussion is.

So, the brain hits the inside of the skull.

And what happens is that the brain cells, the neurons, they act erratically, and they send electrical chemicals going in one direction in another.

So, we can examine the different types of genes that look at or modify those signals.

That's the first thing that they do.

The other thing we can do is, we can look at the genes and see how well they repair, and that's the smoking gun that they've found.

They found a gene called the APOE that -- it seems to change how fast, or it slows down how fast it will repair.

And that seems to be the smoking gun.

They see that, if you have this certain variant of APOE, that you have a tendency for concussions more readily than other people.

So, somewhere in the future, are we gonna be having genetic tests on babies or little children, and we tell their parents, 'Okay, they have this thing.

Make sure they wear a helmet every time they ride a bicycle.'

Or how does it work?

I think that that will be on the horizon fairly soon.

And, again, it's susceptibility.

It's not a deterministic.

And what that means is that you are more inclined, you have a proclivity for concussions, but that doesn't mean you're gonna get it.

They just see the linkages.

And, again, the research is still very early.

So, that information is useful if you have a son or daughter who's interested in a sport where there's some kind of impact.

You can get the test and realize, 'Okay, well, you know, this person shouldn't be having hard impacts during practice all the time.'

It gives you some information of how to modify your practice schedule.

Well, what do we do with this information for people who have already had concussions?

Mm. They can say, 'Okay, well, you may have more concussions because you have this gene, and because the brain cells are not able to repair as quickly.'

But it doesn't really do anything in terms of the symptoms.

It's just giving you information that this might happen.

Even if we could put helmets on players that detect exactly what kind of force they've been hit by, there's still a big cultural hurtle we have to overcome, to say, 'Okay, this is actually good information that you should have, and you should be making these kinds of decisions with it.'

You know, because say, for example -- part of the problem at the NFL level or college-football level is, college athlete might not want to put this on, because if it looks like they have two strikes against them, then a team might not draft that guy.

Right.

You raise a good question.

The information is good, but also it's in a context.

Who knows? If you're a football player and they find that you have this gene, your coverage, your health coverage might change.

So you have to be careful about privacy issues and the like.

So there's a lot of things.

So, scientists are just looking to see what causes a concussion, and what prevents people from healing.

That's one part.

But putting it in a context about how we change practice schedules, if you will get drafted, those are the consequences as a result of that information.

All right.

Ainissa Ramirez. Thanks so much.

Thank you.