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Exposure to Just One Blast Shockwave Can Trigger Dementia Protein Formation

In the September 2013 issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease Dr. David Cook of VA Puget Sound Health Care System and University of Washington described some startling findings. Dr. Cook and his co-researcher Dr. Ibolja Cernak of the University of Alberta subjected mice to isolated shock waves similar to the kind suffered by American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan from IEDs. The magnitude of the shock waves was adjusted downward to reflect the much smaller size of the mice. What they found was that exposure to just one shock wave transformed tau protein in the mice brains to phospho-tau (the altered version of tau that tangles up the brains of symptomatic Alzheimer’s disease patients).

What is tau? Marc Kirschner at Princeton University discovered this molecule in 1975 and determined that its normal function is to stabilize the microtubules that provide structural integrity and some flexibility to the axons of brain cells as well as a means to transport nutrients from the axon tips to the nucleus of the cells. When the brain is subjected to a shockwave from a blow to the head or from exposure to a blast the tau protein molecules can fold in irregular patterns and form the tangles around axons associated with Alzheimer’s dementia. While it was known many years ago that repeated blows to the unprotected head of a boxer could cause dementia, and more recently that repeated blows to the helmet of an NFL football player, now we are seeing that just one exposure to a mild blast can cause tau tangles.