New York Weill Cornell Researchers Find Genetic Basis to Cognitive Problems Suffered by Professional Football Players

Oct 20, 2000


Researchers at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center have linked a gene associated with Alzheimer's disease to the neurological impairment suffered by active professional football players, who, like boxers, often experience head trauma during the course of play. The study, published in the current issue of Neurosurgery, provides new evidence that a genetic factor associated with late-life dementia may play a role in the response to brain injury in much younger individuals.

Previous studies at New York Weill Cornell found that professional boxers who carried this gene were more likely to suffer cognitive problems as a result of repeated blows to the head in the ring.

Dr. Norman Relkin, Dr. Barry Jordan, and the research team examined 53 active professional football players ranging in age from 23 to 36 years. They all underwent evaluation of their memory and other thinking abilities, as well as genetic testing.

Older players in the group who possessed the APOE-e4 gene scored significantly lower on neuropsychological tests than comparably aged players without the gene, and also lower than younger players of any genetic makeup.

"Few past studies have examined the cognitive abilities of active professional football players," said Dr. Relkin, Associate Professor of Clinical Neurology and Neuroscience and Director of the Memory Disorders Program at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center. "It was surprising to learn that active players as young as their 30s who possessed a specific genetic factor had measurable differences in their thinking abilities."

He said, "We would like to see these observations extended to a larger number of players and to other sports. If the results hold true, we may be approaching a time when genetic tests can contribute meaningfully to the care of athletes involved in contact sports, and to the care of others who suffer head trauma."

As for Alzheimer's and other late-life disorders, Dr. Relkin said the study tends to support the view that they may be caused by some combination of genetics and environment, and so the study may represent a step toward the understanding of those diseases as well.