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Head trauma could put people at higher risk of brain cancer

Mind your head.

Multiple bumps to your noggin might put you at risk of brain cancer later in life, a new study reports.

Researchers from the University College London Cancer Institute analyzed how head trauma could put patients at four times more of a risk of glioma, a rare but aggressive type of brain tumor.

According to Johns Hopkins, gliomas comprise about 33% of brain tumors. There are different kinds of gliomas that often occur in adults, but they are also referred to as intra-axial brain tumors due to the growth within the “substance of the brain” mixing in with normal tissue.

Astrocytes, a mature type of brain cell, have been thought as less likely to produce tumors, but UCL researchers investigated whether head injuries could prompt the cells to mutate.

The study found that inflammation at the injury site worsened over time and could potentially cause cellular changes.
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“Our research suggests that a brain trauma may contribute to an increased risk of developing brain cancer in later life,” professor Simona Parrinello, who led the research, said in a statement.

Their research comes as the American Cancer Society estimates there will be 24,810 malignant, or cancerous, brain or spinal cord tumors reported in 2023.

The UCL team used adult mice to determine possible human outcomes in the study, published in Current Biology, by injecting the rodents with brain injuries with a substance that labeled astrocytes, the brain cells, red. The injection additionally halted the p53 gene that is responsible for suppressing cancers.

Doctors looking at brain scans on computer
After studying multiple groups of mice, researchers then compared the data of human patients with head injuries to those without, analyzing the presence of brain tumors.
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Researchers also deactivated the p53 gene in mice with no head injuries, while also leaving the gene intact for a control group.

Astrocytes “take their name from stars,” Parrinello explained, appearing with multiple branches that extend outward. Researchers found that “without p53 and only after an injury,” those brain cells “retracted their branches and became more rounded.”

“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.”

Brain scans
Compared to those without known head injuries, patients with injuries were four times more likely to develop a brain tumor.
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Their findings suggested that gene mutation could occur with brain inflammation as a result of injury, increasing over time due to the aging process.

In an attempt to support their hypothesis on a human level, they worked with UCL’s Institute of Health Information to dig up records of more than 20,000 patients who suffered head injuries. They looked at cancer rates between those with head trauma to those without, discovering that those with head injuries were nearly four times more likely to develop brain cancer down the line.

“We know that normal tissues carry many mutations which seem to just sit there and not have any major effects,” Parrinello said. “Our findings suggest that if on top of those mutations, an injury occurs, it creates a synergistic effect.”

Researchers also found that in younger brains with injury, the inflammation was still relatively low, despite any injury; however, aging appeared to worsen inflammation over time, especially at an injury site as seen in the mice studied.

“This may reach a certain threshold after which the mutation now begins to manifest itself,” she added.

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