Imaging Brain Injury in Former National Football League Players

Leah H. Rubin, Yong Du, Shannon Eileen Sweeney, Riley O’Toole, Cykyra L. Thomas, Adeline G. Zandi, Laura K. Shinehouse, Mary Katherine Brosnan, Hwanhee Nam, Michael E. Burke, Samantha C. Bureau, Jessica J. Kilgore, Mark Yoon, Ana R. Soule, Wojciech G. Lesniak, Il Minn, Steven P. Rowe, Daniel P. Holt, Andrew W. Hall, William B. MathewsGwenn S. Smith, Christopher J. Nowinski, Michael Kassiou, Robert F. Dannals, Martin G. Pomper, Jennifer M. Coughlin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


IMPORTANCE Pilot studies that involved early imaging of the 18 kDa translocator protein (TSPO) using positron emission tomography (PET) indicated high levels of TSPO in the brains of active or former National Football League (NFL) players. If validated further in larger studies, those findings may have implications for athletes involved in collision sport. OBJECTIVE To test for higher TSPO that marks brain injury and repair in a relatively large, unique cohort of former NFL players compared with former elite, noncollision sport athletes. DESIGN, SETTING, AND PARTICIPANTS This cross-sectional study used carbon 11–labeled N,N-diethyl-2-(4-methoxyphenyl)-5,7-dimethylpyrazolo[1,5-a]pyrimidine-3-acetamide positron emission tomography ([11C]DPA-713 PET) data from former NFL players within 12 years of last participation in the NFL and elite noncollision sport athletes from across the US. Participants were enrolled between April 2018 and February 2023. MAIN OUTCOMES AND MEASURES Regional [11C]DPA-713 total distribution volume from [11C]DPA-713 PET that is a measure of regional brain TSPO; regional brain volumes on magnetic resonance imaging; neuropsychological performance, including attention, executive function, and memory domains. RESULTS This study included 27 former NFL players and 27 former elite, noncollision sport athletes. Regional TSPO levels were higher in former NFL players compared with former elite, noncollision sport athletes (unstandardized β coefficient, 1.08; SE, 0.22; 95% CI, 0.65 to 1.52; P < .001). The magnitude of the group difference depended on region, with largest group differences in TSPO in cingulate and frontal cortices as well as hippocampus. Compared with noncollision sport athletes, former NFL players performed worse in learning (mean difference [MD], −0.70; 95% CI, −1.14 to −0.25; P = .003) and memory (MD, −0.77; 95% CI, −1.24 to −0.30; P = .002), with no correlation between total gray matter TSPO and these cognitive domains. CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE In this cross-sectional study using [11C]DPA-713 PET, higher brain TSPO was found in former NFL players compared with noncollision sport athletes. This finding is consistent with neuroimmune activation even after cessation of NFL play. Future longitudinal [11C]DPA-713 PET and neuropsychological testing promises to inform whether neuroimmune-modulating therapy may be warranted.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)E2340580
JournalJAMA Network Open
StateAccepted/In press - 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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