Dyslexia gene may predict concussion susceptibility among football players

A gene associated with the learning disorder dyslexia may offer researchers clues about variations in individual athletes’ susceptibility to concussions, according to a pilot study by Penn State and Northwestern University. 

The results were published in the Journal of Neurotrauma on Oct. 23. 

The pilot study included 87 Division 1 football players who played for Penn State between 2015 and 2017. 

Participants reported to research staff the total number of times they had sustained a concussion from high school to the present, based on diagnosis by a medical professional at the time of the event. Each player also had a swab of his inner cheek taken and the DNA genetically analyzed. 

Researchers aimed to determine whether genotypes of nine candidate genes predicted the number of previously diagnosed concussions in this group of football players. 

The study was led by Semyon Sloubonov, professor of kinesiology and director of the Virtual Reality/Traumatic Brain Injury research laboratory at Penn State, and Hans Breiter, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and director of the Northwestern Medicine Warren Wright Adolescent Center.  

Out of the nine genes studied, researchers found that one — called KIAA0319 — significantly predicted the number of previously diagnosed concussions for the combined cohorts. Specifically, one of the genotypes of KIAA0319 studied — TT — reported by others to have an increased risk for dyslexia, had the lowest risk for prior diagnosed concussion.    

Together, these findings in a small cohort of subjects point to the likelihood that genetic effects may play a role in susceptibility to past concussion in athletes competing at the highest levels of contact sports. 

“This suggests that genotype may play a role in your susceptibility for getting a concussion,” Breiter said. “If replicated, this information may be important to parents.” 

Athletes with the variant of the KIAA0319 gene that does not confer dyslexia were more likely to have a history of concussion injuries. Athletes with the version of the gene linked to increased incidence of dyslexia were less likely to have concussion injuries, Breiter said. 

“Our study demonstrates an association between an athlete’s genetics and his/her concussion risk,” said Dr. Peter Seidenberg, an author on the paper, and professor of orthopedics and family medicine at Penn State Hershey Bone and Joint Institute in State College.

“As a sports medicine physician who has been diagnosing and treating concussions for the past 23 years, it will help guide clinical decision-making. It sheds light on concussion susceptibility, which is valuable information for discussions on the risks versus benefits of future participation in contact or collision sports,” Seidenberg said. 

Alexa Walter, first author of the paper and a graduate student in the Department of Kinesiology at Penn State, said while not conclusive, these results are exciting because they represent a new territory to study when it comes to learning about concussion. 

“This is a piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding concussion, not an answer,” she said. “This work provides insight into how we can use genetics and brain processes to further understand concussion and hopefully one day prevent it.”

David Vandenbergh, co-author and professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State, said these studies are very preliminary, and next steps could include larger studies to find out which variable sites in the genome are responsible for the range of responses seen in concussions. 

“We need to study more genes and do it in more research participants to be able to understand what makes some individuals resilient to concussion and some sensitive,” Vandenbergh said. 

The research was funded by Slobounov’s and Breiter’s labs.