‘Concussion’ movie sheds light on discoveries that may prevent dementia

Dec 21, 2015

Actor Will Smith plays a hero who discovers how football injuries lead to brain disease. At GHRI, Group Health members are contributing to a similar cause.

by Eric B. Larson, MD, MPH, Executive Director, Group Health Research Institute; Vice President for Research, Group Health

The movie “Concussion” opens this week, calling attention to previously untold dangers of one of America’s favorite pastimes—professional football. Audiences will learn how real-life pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered that NFL players’ on-field brain injuries were linked to their mental illness later in life—and in some cases, their premature deaths.

Here at Group Health Research Institute (GHRI), we’re engaged in a similar pursuit. The difference is, our scientists are learning how a wide range of life experiences may contribute to—or prevent—changes in the brain over time. We’ve discovered, for example, that regular physical activity can delay the development of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. We also know that exercises to improve balance can help the elderly avoid falls that cause head injuries and concussions. Our research has shown that such accidents pose an especially high risk to brain function in this age group.

The Group Health study—called “Adult Changes in Thought” or ACT—has involved thousands of people over age 65 for the past 30 years. In collaboration with the University of Washington (UW), we collect information on ACT participants’ entire health history, including their medical, laboratory, and pharmacy records. Our research teams conduct interviews with participants every two years, assessing their physical and mental functioning. We collect DNA samples from them and we find out if they’re willing to donate their brains for autopsy after they die. So far, more than 600 people have agreed, making ACT one of the largest brain banks in the world.

Recently, our ACT researchers joined with other scientists from UW and the Allen Institute for Brain Science to begin studying the long-term effects of traumatic brain injury—whether caused on sports fields, in the military, or by common falls and accidents. Led by Dr. Richard G. Ellenbogen, chairman of neurological surgery at the UW, the researchers will analyze the ACT brain samples to expand our understanding of the long-term molecular and anatomical changes that happen following head trauma. Ultimately, such knowledge may be used to improve treatment for people with trauma-related brain disease.

For now, the movie “Concussion” may raise awareness among athletes and their families about the need to avoid brain trauma and to care for head injuries when they do happen. You can learn about prevention and treatment of concussions on ghc.org. More tips for protecting your brain are offered on our Live Healthy pages.

Paying attention to brain health—whether on a sports field, in a Group Health clinic, or at our research institute—is all part of our ongoing work to help you and family live healthier lives now and for many years to come.

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Posted by Judith Peterick on
I am a participant in ACT. Will this research continue here in Seattle if we accept Kaiser's offer?

I have read that this research might go away if we join Kaiser.
Posted by Patricia Artz on
How do we know the difference between dementia and Alzheimers?
Posted by julian_rogers on
Dear Ms. Peterick:

The ACT study—along with other research at Group Health--will continue under Kaiser’s agreement to acquire the organization. Group Health Research Institute will become one of eight regional research centers within the Kaiser organization nationally.

Thank you for your continuing participation in the ACT study. We recently received new funding for ACT from the National Institute on Aging, so we look forward to working with you on this important research for many years to come.

Dr. Eric B. Larson
Executive Director, Group Health Research Institute
Vice President for Research, Group Health
Posted by julian_rogers on
Dear Ms Artz:

Dementia is a group of symptoms that affect a person’s memory and thinking skills. It that can be caused by a variety of health conditions—the most common of which is Alzheimer’s disease. Other causes of dementia include traumatic brain injury and vascular problems, such as stroke. Sometimes people have “mixed dementia,” which means their condition is caused by a combination of factors such as Alzheimer’s and vascular problems. Determining which disease process is causing dementia can be difficult. Patients and their families who are concerned about problems with memory and thinking should talk with their health care teams to learn about these conditions. The online booklet Understanding Memory Loss (http://1.usa.gov/1ZWVd0o) from the National Institute on Aging also provides good information on Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

Dr. Eric B. Larson
Executive Director, Group Health Research Institute
Vice President for Research, Group Health
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