Publications & Posters

Blood biomarkers and neurodegeneration in individuals exposed to repetitive head impacts

Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy | October 12, 2023

Bernick C, Shan G, Ritter A, Ashton NJ, Blennow K, Lantero-Rodriguez J, Snellman A, Zetterberg H.

Alzheimers Res Ther. 2023

This study was performed using Simoa Homebrew assay(s).



It is unknown if fluid biomarkers reflective of brain pathologies are useful in detecting and following a neurodegenerative process in individuals exposed to repetitive head impacts. This study explores the relationship between blood biomarkers and longitudinal change in cognitive function and regional brain volumes in a cohort of professional fighters.


Participants are drawn from a convenience sample of active and retired professional boxers and Mixed Martial Arts fighters and a control group with no prior exposure to head impacts. 3 T MRI brain imaging, plasma samples, and computerized cognitive testing were obtained at baseline and, for a subset, annually. MRI regional volumes were extracted, along with plasma levels of neurofilament light chain (NfL), glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP), p-tau231, and N-terminal tau (NTA). Statistical analyses were performed to assess the relationship between plasma levels and regional brain volumes and cognitive performance at baseline and longitudinally.


One hundred forty active boxers (mean age: 31 with standard deviation (SD) of 8), 211 active MMA (mean age of 30 with SD of 5), 69 retired boxers (mean age 49 with SD of 9), and 52 control participants (mean age 36 with SD of 12) were included in the analyses. Baseline GFAP levels were highest in the retired boxers (retired boxers v. active MMA: p = 0.0191), whereas active boxers had higher levels of NfL (active boxers v. MMA: p = 0.047). GFAP showed an increase longitudinally in retired boxers that was associated with decreasing volumes of multiple cortical and subcortical structures (e.g., hippocampus: B =  − 1.25, 95% CI, − 1.65 to − 0.85) and increase in lateral ventricle size (B = 1.75, 95% CI, 1.46 to 2.04). Furthermore, performance on cognitive domains including memory, processing speed, psychomotor speed, and reaction time declined over time with increasing GFAP (e.g., processing speed: B =  − 0.04, 95% CI, − 0.07 to − 0.02; reaction time: B = 0.52, 95% CI, 0.28 to 0.76). Among active fighters, increasing levels of GFAP were correlated with lower thalamic (B =  − 1.42, 95% CI, − 2.34 to -0.49) and corpus callosum volumes, along with worsening scores on psychomotor speed (B = 0.14, 95% CI, 0.01 to 0.27).


Longitudinal plasma GFAP levels may have a role in identifying individuals exposed to repetitive head impacts who are at risk of showing progressive regional atrophy and cognitive decline.