February 24, 2023 | 2:49 PM
Mind your Head.
Multiple punches to your skull could put you at risk for brain cancer later in life, a new study reports.
Researchers at University College London Cancer Institute found that head trauma could put patients at four times the risk of glioma, a rare but aggressive type of brain tumor.
According to Johns Hopkins, gliomas make up about 33% of brain tumors. There are several types of gliomas that commonly occur in adults, but they are also called intra-axial brain tumors because of the growths in the “substance of the brain” that mixes with normal tissue.
Astrocytes, a mature type of brain cell, were thought to be less likely to produce tumors, but UCL researchers investigated whether head injury could cause the cells to mutate.
“Our research suggests that brain trauma may contribute to an increased risk of developing brain cancer later in life,” Professor Simona Parrinello, who led the study, said in a statement.
The results of the study coincide with the American Cancer Society’s forecast that there will be 24,810 malignant or cancerous brain or spinal cord tumors by 2023.
The UCL team used adult mice to determine potential human outcomes in the study, published in Current Biology, by injecting the brain-damaged rodents with a substance that red-labels astrocytes. The injection also stopped the p53 gene responsible for suppressing cancers.
Researchers also deactivated the p53 gene in mice without a head injury, while leaving the gene intact for a control group.
Astrocytes “take their name from stars,” Parrinello explained. They appear with multiple branches extending outward. Researchers found that “without p53 and only after an injury” those brain cells “retracted their branches and became rounder.”
“They weren’t quite stem cell-like, but something had changed,” she said. “So we let the mice age, then looked at the cells again and saw that they had completely reverted to a stem-like state with markers of early glioma cells that could divide.”
Their findings suggested that gene mutation might occur in brain inflammation due to injury, which increases over time due to the aging process.
In an effort to support their hypothesis on a human level, they teamed up with UCL’s Institute of Health Informatics to dig up data from more than 20,000 patients with head injuries. They looked at cancer rates between people with head trauma and those without head trauma, and found that people with head injuries were nearly four times more likely to develop brain cancer later on.
“We know that normal tissues have a lot of mutations that just seem to sit there and don’t have major effects,” Parrinello said. “Our findings suggest that if injury occurs on top of those mutations, it creates a synergistic effect.”
Researchers also found that in younger brains with injury, inflammation was still relatively low despite some injury; however, aging seemed to worsen inflammation over time, especially at a site of injury, as seen in the mice studied.
“This can reach a certain threshold after which the mutation starts to manifest,” she added.