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Science and Research

Concussions Linked to Dyslexia Gene

How Your Genes May Play a Role in Protection

This article was originally published in the Northwestern University News Center. It has been modified for Northwestern Medicine’s content hub, HealthBeat.

A gene associated with dyslexia, a learning disorder, may make some athletes less susceptible to concussions, reports a study from Penn State University and Northwestern Medicine. This is believed to be the first time that this gene has been implicated in concussion or mild traumatic brain injury in athletes of a high-impact sport.

A Closer Look at the Study

The study included 87 varsity Penn State football players from 2015 to 2017. The players reported their concussion history, which the team physician confirmed through each player’s medical evaluation and medical records of observable concussion signs as opposed to player reports of symptoms. Each player had a swab of his inner cheek taken, which was genetically analyzed.

The gene KIAA0319, which had not been looked at in concussion research before, could have an effect on how neurons respond to head impacts or are repaired after an injury.

Everyone has the KIAA0319 gene in one of three combinations. A genotype is the particular set of genes in a person’s DNA that determine their particular traits, such as eye color, hair color or, in this case, an association with dyslexia. In this gene, the genotypes are known as CC, CT or TT. There was a direct increase in diagnosed concussions as one went from CC to CT to TT individuals. The CC genotype has been associated with dyslexia in other studies.

Athletes with one variant of the gene that is not associated with dyslexia were more likely to have a history of concussion injuries. Meanwhile, athletes with the version of the gene that causes dyslexia were less likely to have concussion injuries.

“This suggests that genotype may play a role in your susceptibility for getting a concussion,” says co-corresponding author Northwestern Medicine Psychiatrist and Neuroscientist Hans C. Breiter, MD, who is also a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “If replicated, this information may be important to parents.”

The reason for the lower risk may relate to the more diffuse way the dyslexic brain is wired, said co-corresponding author Sam Semyon Slobounov, professor of kinesiology and of neurosurgery at Hershey Medical School of Penn State University and director of the Virtual Reality/Traumatic Brain Injury Research Laboratory. “Dyslexia may be neuroprotective, a hypothesis that could be tested,” he said.

What’s Ahead

The study is part of a larger project in the Concussion Neuroimaging Consortium, which studies the neuroscience of head impacts in athletes.

Amy Anne Herrold, PhD, research assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, adds, “This finding raises the question: Are their particular factors we can determine that put players at higher risk, and should those players be placed in sports that don’t have the potential for head trauma?”

Additional research is needed to explore these findings and their implications.


Hans C. Breiter, MD
Hans C. Breiter, MD
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