Footballers with Dyslexia Gene Are More ‘Susceptible’ to Concussion, says US University Paper

For the first time, researchers at Penn State University and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine have identified a genetic link between high impact sports and reported incidence of concussions.[1] This research is part of a larger Concussion Neuroimaging Consortium project. Findings were published in the Journal of Neurotrauma.[2]

In this study, the medical history of 87 American football players was observed, between 2015 and 2017. Cheek swabs were taken and analysis was focused on the KIAA0319 gene, which has a role in cell adhesion and neuron migration.

All genes are expressed in 1 of 3 variants (genotypes). Alexa Walter, lead-author of the paper, predicted that expression of KIAA0319 could have an effect on how neurons respond to head impacts, or alternatively, the biological mechanism by which neurons repair.

Ultimately, the researchers discovered that there was a direct decrease in diagnosed concussions in individuals who expressed KIAA0319 as the genotypic variant associated with dyslexia.

‘Dyslexia may be neuroprotective’, says Sam Semyon Slobounov, Professor of Kinesiology and Neurosurgery at Penn State.

Dr Hans Breiter, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern, explained why this may be the case:

‘In dyslexia, you tend to have less defined wiring for processing spoken and written language. Dyslexics have a problem with that. Their wiring is more diffuse in this system. Future studies could directly test if diffuse wiring is better able to absorb a shock wave than clearly defined wiring’.

According to Amy Herrold, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern, these findings could indicate that players with genetic susceptibility to head trauma should be warned that they are at risk of brain injury if they participate in high impact sporting activities.

In previous editions of BC Disease News, we have reported on the Jeff Astle Foundation, which is lobbying the UK Government and the English Football Association to recognise certain dementias, such as dementia pugilistica (or CTE), as an ‘industrial disease’. Pressure has grown amid fears that Professional footballers are at risk of degenerative brain injury, through sustained sub-concussive impacts, e.g. ‘heading’ of footballs.               

In another US study, conducted by the Boston University School of Medicine and the VA Boston Healthcare System, a genotypic variant of the TMEM106B gene, which is thought to be involved in the brain’s inflammation system, was found to have a 2.5 fold increase on the risk of CTE symptoms among 86 former contact-sports athletes.[3]

To date, all reported diagnoses of CTE in ex-Professional footballers have occurred post-mortem. However, co-author of the Boston University study and neuropathologist, Thor Stein, believes that novel therapeutic targets’ can be developed to treat all victims of the disease.


[1] ‘Football players' concussions linked to dyslexia gene’ (23 October 2018 Science Daily) <> accessed 31 October 2018.

[2] Alexa Walter, Amy Herrold, Virginia Terwilliger Gallagher, Myungjoo Lee, M Scaramuzzo, Timothy Bream, Peter Seidenberg, David Vandenbergh, Kailyn O'Connor, Thomas M. Talavage, Eric Nauman, Semyon Slobounov, Hans Breiter. KIAA0319 Genotype Predicts the Number of Past Concussions in a Division I Football Team: A Pilot Study. Journal of Neurotrauma, 2018; DOI: 10.1089/neu.2017.5622

[3] ‘Genetic risk factor for CTE detected’ (3 November 2018 EurekAlert!) <> accessed 5 November 2018.