Sustaining Head Injuries May Increase the Chances of Developing Brain Cancer

“Our research suggests that a brain trauma may contribute to an increased risk of developing brain cancer in later life,” Simona Parrinello, PhD, Head of the Samantha Dickson Brain Cancer Unit and co-lead of the Cancer Research UK Brain Tumour Centre of Excellence stated regarding a study published in Current Biology.

The study, conducted by researchers at University College London (UCL), suggested that head injuries could be a contributing factor in the development of brain cancer in later life. Researchers found that genetic mutations, combined with brain tissue inflammation, changed the behavior of cells, making them more likely to become cancerous. This could explain the possible link between head injuries and increased rates of brain tumors, although previous evidence on the subject has been inconclusive.

The study was largely carried out in mice, but the researchers believe that it is important to explore the relevance of these findings to human gliomas. The study revealed that, following brain injury, astrocytes can exhibit stem cell-like behaviors, and are therefore able to form a tumor. The team also found that after brain trauma, the cells had reverted to a stem-like state with markers of early glioma cells that could divide. They discovered that mutations in certain genes synergized with brain inflammation to make astrocytes more likely to initiate cancer.

The team looked for evidence to support their hypothesis in human populations, consulting electronic medical records of over 20,000 people who had been diagnosed with head injuries. They found that patients who experienced a head injury were nearly four times more likely to develop brain cancer later in life than those who had no head injury.

While the risk of developing brain cancer is overall low (estimated at less than 1% over a lifetime), the risk remains modest even after a serious injury. The study suggests that it may be important to explore the relevance of these findings to human gliomas.

“We know that normal tissues carry many mutations which seem to just sit there and not have any major effects, Dr. Parrinello remarked, “Our findings suggest that if on top of those mutations, an injury occurs, it creates a synergistic effect. In a young brain, basal inflammation is low so the mutations seem to be kept in check even after a serious brain injury.”