Concussion Genes: How DNA May Raise the Risks for Some Soccer Players

Aug 12, 2021

Why is it that two players can bash heads or head the ball frequently, yet only one of the two might suffer a brain injury? Genetics may provide the answer. There’s mounting evidence to suggest that genes may increase the risk of brain injuries among some players versus others. This post will take a look at potential gene variants that play a role and how they affect players. 

SPATA5 gene 

The SPATA5 gene appears to play a role in mitochondrial function and brain development. How much of an effect the gene has on these functions is still a mystery. Researchers do know, however, that people who have mutations in this gene can sometimes develop a host of problems. 

Many of them are brain impairments such as developmental delays, hearing loss, epileptic seizures, vision impairment and microcephaly (an abnormally small head). These deficits are usually seen among people who have a deletion of the SPATA5 gene. 

Of course, many people who carry these variants live disease-free. But since a mutation of this gene is associated with poor sensory function, disease-free individuals who carry it may have a greater risk of sustaining a concussion. It would seem the gene mutation weakens sensory function - which is a key symptom of concussions. So, in theory, carrying this gene and getting a blow to the head might damage already-weakened sensory function.  

PLXNA4 gene

The PLXNA4 gene is more understood in the realm of neuroscience. Researchers have identified this gene for its role in encoding proteins which help neurons make connections within the brain. It basically fine-tunes the brain's ability to communicate and send information throughout its various parts.

But researchers are also aware that a mutation of this gene has been linked to an increased risk for Alzheimer's disease, due to its effects on neurons and tau protein levels.  

A mutation of the PLXNA4 gene may inhibit nerve (neuron growth). How would this gene make a soccer player more prone to a concussion? Perhaps, when a person sustains a brain injury, their already weakened neurons (due to the mutation) become even more damaged. Remember too, that concussions occur because of neuron damage. 

The gene also appears to elevate one’s level of tau proteins, which researchers have identified as being a trigger of the disease. Interestingly enough, researchers also found that frequently heading a soccer ball elevates this protein

APOE4 gene

You may have already heard about the APOE4 gene before, as being a key genetic trigger of Alzheimer's disease. Researchers are also studying its effects on concussions, but the findings on this one are still murky. 

When asking the question if the APOE4 gene raises one's risk of a concussion the answer is: “possibly yes, possibly no”. 

Some studies have looked at athletes who had multiple concussions. They found that the ones who carried the mutant APOE4 gene were more likely to have worse outcomes in the long run. However, there seems little evidence that the gene mutation itself leads to a concussion. 

Is It Worth Knowing? 

So we just bombarded you with a trio of genes that may affect your concussion status or not. You're probably wondering if this really means anything. For now, we won't tell you to run out and test to see if you have these dreams because the research still has some way to go. Also, just because you might carry a gene mutation, it doesn't automatically mean you will suffer negative effects.

But we think it's important to understand the role of genes in head injuries. After all, we now know that genes play a role in the development of other injuries.

For example, the dreaded ACL tear which is a nightmare for all athletes including soccer players is more likely to occur in people who have a genetic predisposition to it. The culprit? A mutation of the COL5A1 gene. That's why it comes as no surprise that some genes may put certain players at a higher risk for brain injury compared to others. 

In the near future, knowing what genes lead to what injuries may become very valuable. Perhaps, this information can inform players of injury risks so that they can take more precautions. That could mean adjusting their training, diet, and overall style of play. 

It's controversial because many athletes hate the idea of being limited by their genes or being told that they shouldn't play a position or a certain sport. But we don't think learning about a mutation should permanently sideline a player. However, we do think it can help them make smarter choices to reduce the risk of certain injuries. 

Practical Tips to Protect Oneself 

Are we encouraging you to drop a few hundred bucks on a gene testing kit? No, not at all. We’re simply suggesting that it may be a powerful tool in the future to know one’s brain injury risk. With that said, there are practical steps that everyone can take to reduce their concussion risk regardless of their genetics.

These are preventative measures that any soccer player can take no matter what their biology dictates. And if a genetic test revealed you had a mutation, these are the steps you’d have to take to lower your risk anyway. 

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