Mild Traumatic Brain Injury & Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease


Grant L. Iverson, PhD

This article is derived, in large part, from the following book chapter and review paper: Iverson, G. L., Lange, R. T., Gaetz, M., & Zasler, N. D.  (2006). MTBI. In N. D. Zasler, D. I. Katz, & R. D. Zafonte (Eds.), Brain injury medicine: Principles and practice. New York: Demos Medical Publishing; Iverson, G. L. (2005). Outcome from Mild Traumatic Brain Injury. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 18, 301-317.

A provocative, confusing, and controversial issue relating to outcome from mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI) is whether this injury increases a person’s risk for the future development of Alzheimer’s disease. This article provides a review of literature pertaining to this issue. The article is divided into the following four sections: (1) risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, (2) mild traumatic brain injury: definition & pathophysiology, (3) risk for Alzheimer’s disease following MTBI, and (4) conclusions.

Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, is a progressive and devastating brain disease. It results in a progressive deterioration of neurocognitive (such as learning, memory, higher-order language skills, judgment, and reasoning) and functional abilities. As the disease progresses, some patients experience pronounced personality and behavior changes including anxiety, agitation, suspiciousness, delusions, and hallucinations. The disease can be frightening and overwhelming for patients and their families.

The greatest risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease is age. Meta-analytic studies have consistently found that the prevalence of the disease around the world increases with age (e.g., 1-4). In an early meta-analysis of 22 studies, Jorm and colleagues (2) reported that the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease doubled every 4.5 years; they reported the following prevalence rates stratified by age group: 65-69 years (1.4%), 70-74 years (2.8%), 75-79 years (5.6%), 80-84 years (11.1%), and 85 years or more (23.6%). The risk for developing the disease is low in a person’s 60’s and high after the age of 85 (perhaps 25-50% of older adults).

Not surprisingly, there has been considerable interest in genetics [particularly the apolipoprotein E (ApoE) gene (5-8)], singly or in combination, with lifestyle as a risk factor for the disease. Genetics clearly represent a risk factor. Another predominant risk factor appears to be cardiovascular and cerebrovascular health and disease, broadly defined. There is ongoing interest in cerebrovascular disease and vascular risk factors (9, 10); cardiovascular disease and subgroups of patients with peripherial arterial disease (11); high cholesterol (12); and elevated plasma total homocysteine concentrations and low serum folate concentrations (13). The risk for Alzheimer’s disease appears to increase with the number of vascular risk factors (diabetes + hypertension + heart disease + current smoking), with diabetes and current smoking being the strongest risk factors in isolation or in combination in a recent study (14).

The search for risk factors is diverse and ongoing, and includes a variety of cellular processes such as oxidative stress, disturbed protein metabolism, and their interaction (15, 16); zinc metabolism (17); loss of microglial cell function (18); and decreased melatonin (19). Environmental factors, such as heavy metal exposure (20), have been investigated for many years.

Nutrition and lifestyle factors, such as midlife obesity (21), lack of exercise (22), and watching too much television in middle-adulthood (presumably as a marker for reduced participation in intellectually stimulating activities; 23), have been associated with an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Even a man’s height has been associated with risk. Researchers have reported that short men are at increased risk (presumably due to its association with childhood nutrition and other risk factors for dementia; 24).

Mental health problems, such as a history of depression in adulthood (25), have been associated with an increased risk for the disease. Researchers have reported that this risk appears to be greater for men (26). As seen in this brief overview of the risk factor literature, there many factors that have been linked statistically to the disease. Much research is needed to examine combinations of these factors and their combined relative and absolute risk for developing the disease. Researchers and clinicians interested in risk for Alzheimer’s disease in patients who have sustained traumatic brain injuries, especially mild traumatic brain injuries, should consider this possible risk factor in the context of multiple other more important risk factors such as age, genetics, and vascular disease.

Mild Traumatic Brain Injury: Definition & Epidemiology

In 2004, a comprehensive review of the literature on mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI) was published in a series of articles in the Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine (e.g., 27-31). The World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre Task Force on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury provided the definition reprinted below.

“MTBI is an acute brain injury resulting from mechanical energy to the head from external physical forces. Operational criteria for clinical identification include: (i) 1 or more of the following: confusion or disorientation, loss of consciousness for 30 minutes or less, post-traumatic amnesia for less than 24 hours, and/or other transient neurological abnormalities such as focal signs, seizure, and intracranial lesion not requiring surgery; and/or? (ii) Glasgow Coma Scale score of 13–15 after 30 minutes post-injury or later upon presentation for healthcare.

These manifestations of MTBI must not be due to drugs, alcohol, medications, caused by other injuries or treatment for other injuries (e.g. systemic injuries, facial injuries or intubation), caused by other problems (e.g. psychological trauma, language barrier or coexisting medical conditions) or caused by penetrating craniocerebral injury” (page 115; 32)

This definition is consistent with the widely cited definition developed by the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee of the Head Injury Interdisciplinary Special Interest Group of the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine (33). It is also consistent with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) working group definition set out in a report to the United States Congress in 2003 (34), and the definitions used by many researchers over the past 20 years.

The potential for incomplete recovery and poor psychosocial outcome following mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI) has been recognized as a public health problem (35-37). Unfortunately, these injuries are common in daily life and in sports. Concussions in sports, for example, are very common. In a recent study, 30% of high school football players reported at least one previous concussion; 15% reported that they experienced a concussion during the current football season (38). Sosin et al. (39), based on the National Health Interview Survey in 1991, estimated that 1.5 million Americans suffer a traumatic brain injury each year (i.e., 618/100,000). The vast majority of these injuries are mild in severity. The prevalence estimate of Sosin and colleagues is much higher than previous estimates based on hospital admissions because most people who sustain an MTBI are not evaluated in the emergency department or admitted to the hospital (39). Bazarian and colleagues (40) reported that 56/100,000 people are evaluated in the emergency department each year for anisolated MTBI. Of course, many other patients sustain MTBIs as one of several injuries (e.g., orthopedic injuries following a motor vehicle accident).


It is necessary to review the pathophysiology of MTBI in order to properly consider the possible relation between this injury and the future development of Alzheimer’s disease. It is important to note that the pathophysiology of MTBI appears to be predominately neurometabolic and reversible. However, some people with this injury have macroscopic structural damage visible with static neuroimaging (e.g., CT or MRI; 30, 41-46) and permanent cellular damage that is not visible through neuroimaging (47). Without question, the pathophysiology and pathoanatomy of MTBI falls on a broad spectrum. MTBIs are not created equally and it is a mistake to adopt a simplistic binary approach to conceptualizing this injury (e.g., present or absent). The spectrum of pathophysiology is illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Spectrum of MTBI pathophysiology.
Very mild, rapidly reversible neurometabolic dysfunction Prolonged, multilayered, neurometabolic cascade with possible minor long-lasting cellular dysfunction Macroscopic abnormality (contusion), localized and more widespread cellular damage and dysfunction

A book chapter by Giza and Hovda (48) provides an excellent summary of the pathophysiology of concussion, learned mostly from animal studies. I have relied on this chapter to summarize the complex interwoven cellular and vascular changes that occur following a concussion. This has been conceptualized as a multilayered neurometabolic cascade whereby affected cells typically recover, although under certain circumstances they might degenerate and die. The primary mechanisms include ionic shifts, abnormal energy metabolism, diminished cerebral blood flow, and impaired neurotransmission.

Immediately after a concussive injury, there is an indiscriminate release of neurotransmitters and uncontrolled ionic fluxes. Potassium (K+) rapidly leaves the cell. Shortly after injury, and for a prolonged period of time, there is an influx of calcium (Ca2+). When the ionic gradients are disrupted, cells respond by activating ion pumps in an attempt to restore the normal membrane potential. Because these pumps require energy to function, more glucose is utilized. This leads to dramatic increases in the local cerebral metabolic rate for glucose. This hypermetabolism occurs in the context of decreased cerebral blood flow , which can contribute to a disparity between glucose supply and demand. In addition to increased glucose utilization, there may be impaired oxidative metabolism and diminished mitochondrial function. As a result, anaerobic (not requiring oxygen) energy pathways may be over-utilized. Elevated lactate can occur as a by-product of anaerobic energy production (and through other mechanisms). In addition, intracellular magnesium levels decrease significantly and remain depressed for several days following injury. This is important because magnesium is essential for generation of adenosine-triphosphate (ATP - energy production). Magnesium is also essential for the initiation of protein synthesis and the maintenance of the cellular membrane potential .

The sustained influx of Ca2+ has at least two important effects: (1) mitochondrial accumulations of Ca2+, and (2) initiation of a pathophysiologic process of axonal injury. The increased mitochondrial Ca2+ can lead to metabolic dysfunction and eventually energy failure. Abnormally high intracellular Ca2+ levels can initiate an irreversible process of destruction of microtubules within axons. Coupled with neurofilament damage that can occur with stretch injury, microtubule damage can impair axoplasmic flow along the length of the axon. When this occurs, axons can swell and separate.

When entire cells die following MTBI (NB: a small number), the mechanism of death relates to the spectrum of necrosis; however, researchers have reported that apoptosis (programmed cell death) appears to contribute to cell mortality in both grey and white matter following MTBI (51). Thus, the mechanisms of cell death might represent a continuum between apoptotic and necrotic pathways (52)It is important to note that cell death is closely related to injury severity. Very mild concussions likely produce virtually no permanent damage to cells resulting in long-term symptoms or problems whereas severe traumatic brain injuries, especially those involving considerable forces, often produce widespread cellular death and dysfunction with clear functional consequences.

Fortunately, the majority of the pathophysiology of concussion is neurometabolic and reversible. The brain undergoes dynamic restoration in the initial days and weeks post injury. That is why most people who sustain MTBIs appear to recover fully. Permanent cognitive, psychological, or psychosocial problems due to the biological effects of this injury are relatively uncommon in trauma patients and rare in athletes (see 27, 53-57 for recent comprehensive reviews). When considering the full spectrum of MTBIs, the prevalence of incomplete recovery likely is considerably lower than the widely-cited 15% estimate (for a discussion of this point, see 55, 58). Despite decades of research, slow or incomplete recovery from MTBI remains poorly understood. The spectrum of recovery from MTBI is illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Continuum of recovery from MTBI.
(Hours/Several Days)
Typical/Likely Complete
(1-12 Weeks)
(3-6 Months)
(6-12 Months)

Recovery is influenced by numerous and diverse biopsychosocial factors. It is a critical mistake to conceptualize recovery from a predominately pathophysiological perspective. The underlying cause for poor outcome in patients falling in the atypical or incomplete end of the spectrum is likely multifactorial in most cases. Poor outcome typically involves combinations of factors that are modestly-related, or even unrelated, to the original severity of injury. Some of these factors include pre-existing personality characteristics, life stress, psychiatric conditions, or substance abuse problems (59-61); co-morbid conditions, such as chronic pain, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, life stress, or substance abuse (62-68); litigation (69-71); exaggeration or malingering (72-76); and symptom expectations, misattribution, and response bias (67, 77-83). A biopsychosocial perspective is the only reasonable approach for conceptualizing poor long-term outcome following MTBI.

A controversial and poorly understood issue relating to outcome from MTBI is whether this injury increases a person’s risk for the future development of Alzheimer’s disease. A brief review of the literature on risk for the disease in people who have sustained traumatic brain injuries, of all severities, is provided below.

Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease Following MTBI

There has been considerable research interest regarding whether mild, repetitive mild, moderate, or severe traumatic brain injuries increase a person’s risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. This research has been ongoing, with mixed results, for more than 20 years. At this point in time, there is no clear consensus in the literature.

A prima facie plausible theory is that severe traumatic brain injuries reduce “cognitive reserve,” resulting in increased vulnerability to developing the disease (84). The animal literature has revealed evidence that some of the neuropathological features of Alzheimer’s disease arise shortly after traumatic brain injury (see 85, 86 for reviews), and human autopsy studies also have supported these findings (87, 88). If a severe traumatic brain injury results in widespread cellular death, it seems reasonable to assume that the injured person would be more vulnerable to the adverse neurocognitive effects of natural aging and degenerative brain disease.

The relation between traumatic brain injury and risk for Alzheimer’s disease is very difficult to study, from a methodological perspective. One methodology is to examine a large, cross-sectional cohort of subjects with history of brain injury identified retrospectively and dementia diagnosed in the present. Another methodology is to attempt to follow patients prospectively. Over the years, using varying research designs and methodologies (including autopsy studies), some researchers have reported a statistical relation between a history of traumatic brain injury (mostly moderate or severe) and a current diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease (e.g., 89-102). However, other researchers have frequently failed to find this association (e.g., 103-111).

There has been considerable interest in whether genetic factors influence the susceptibility of the human brain to injury and/or the capacity for recovery. If so, these genetic factors could influence the relation between traumatic brain injury and the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers have been most interested in the ApoE allele; ApoE4 reportedly is associated with worse outcome following traumatic brain injury (e.g., see 112, 113 for reviews) whereas ApoE3 might be neuroprotective. Thus, genetics might play an important role in the degree of permanent brain damage sustained following traumatic injury.

The logical extension is to study whether genetics, in combination with traumatic brain injury (typically moderate or severe TBI), increase one’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers have reported mixed and contradictory findings in this area. Some researchers have reported a positive association between TBI, ApoE, and dementia (e.g., 114, 115), while other researchers have not found this relation (e.g., 93, 94). Some researchers have even reported the opposite of the “expected” relation, that TBI increases the risk for Alzheimer’s disease in those without the genetic characteristic (e.g., 87, 88, 96). Thus, the role of ApoE in the relation between TBI and Alzheimer’s disease requires further study.

Mortimer and colleagues conducted an important meta-analytic review of the entire literature published prior to 1991 (116). They reported that traumatic brain injuries were associated with a 1.82 relative risk (RR) (95% confidence interval = 1.26 to 2.67) for developing Alzheimer’s disease. The relative risk was significant for men (RR = 2.67, 95% CI = 1.64 to 4.41) but not for women (RR = 0.85, 95% CI = 0.43 to 1.70). This meta-analysis, and the individual studies reporting the connection, have slowly lead to a widespread clinical belief that TBI increases a patient’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease. By extension, clinicians have assumed that mild TBI also increases the risk, even though most of the literature is based on moderate or severe TBIs. However, Fleminger and colleagues conducted a second meta-analytic review of the literature and reported that studies publishedsince 1991 did not reveal a statistically significant increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease (117). Fleminger and colleagues reported that if one considers the entire literature (i.e., the studies published before and after the Mortimer meta-analysis) there is an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease associated with a history of TBI (Odds Ratio (OR) = 1.58, 95% CI = 1.21 to 2.06). This increased risk was significant for men (OR = 2.26, 95% CI = 1.13 to 4.53) but not for women (OR = 0.92, 95% CI = 0.53 to 1.59). Starkstein and Jorge (118) suggested that this increased risk in men and not women might simply reflect men sustaining more severe traumatic brain injuries. Jellinger, in his review of the literature, concluded that the epidemiological and autopsy studies have provided evidence of an association between severe traumatic brain injury and Alzheimer’s disease (86).



Mild traumatic brain injuries are heterogeneous and highly individualized injuries. Recovery and return to pre-injury functioning is influenced by numerous factors. Nonetheless, the cognitive and neurobehavioral consequences of the injury are self-limiting and reasonably predictable. MTBIs are characterized by immediate physiological changes conceptualized as a multilayered neurometabolic cascade in which affected cells typically recover, although under certain circumstances a small number might degenerate and die. The primary pathophysiologies include ionic shifts, abnormal energy metabolism, diminished cerebral blood flow, and impaired neurotransmission.

It is important to appreciate that cell death is closely related to injury severity. Mild traumatic brain injuries, especially injuries on the milder end of the spectrum, are typically characterized by cellular dysfunction that is reversible. There is a continuum of injury, at the cellular level, ranging from completely and rapidly reversible cellular dysfunction, to slow but complete recovery, to slow and incomplete recovery, to cell death. Very mild concussions likely produce virtually no permanent damage to cells resulting in long-term symptoms or problems whereas severe traumatic brain injuries, especially those involving considerable forces, often produce widespread cellular death and dysfunction with clear functional consequences; complicated MTBIs and moderate TBIs likely fall in between.

In patients with MTBIs, the brain undergoes dynamic restoration in the first two weeks post injury. The patient typically experiences maximal symptoms and problems within the first 72 hours with rapid improvement in functioning over the first two weeks. Athletes typically report resolution of symptoms within 2-21 days. Trauma patients typically take longer to return to their baseline functioning, but most recover within three months post injury. Some take considerably longer to recover. This can be due to a variety of factors, only some of which relate to the actual injury to the brain. Permanent damage to the brain occurs in some patients who sustain MTBIs, but the majority of the pathophysiology is neurometabolic and reversible.

In regards to risk for Alzheimer’s disease, there are many conflicting results in this large literature spanning more than 20 years. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to conclude that patients who sustain severe TBIs are at a small increased risk for the future development of Alzheimer’s disease, as concluded by Starkstein and Jorge (118) and Jellinger (86). Given that (a) many studies have failed to find an association between history of TBI (of any severity) and the disease, (b) the meta-analyses have only identified this association for men, (c) several studies have found a severity effect (i.e., risk is greater in patients with more severe brain injuries), and (d) the pathophysiology of MTBI, especially on the milder end of the spectrum of this injury, appears to be temporary and reversible, it would be a mistake to conclude, at this point in time, that patients with MTBIs, as a group, are at increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Several specific studies suggest that there is not a relationship between MTBI and risk for Alzheimer’s disease (e.g., 94, 98, 109).


It is important to note that the decreases in cerebral blood flow (CBF) do not reach ischemic levels. These are mild reductions and certainly not serious alterations in CBF with the additional vascular complications often seen in patients with moderate to severe brain injuries (49).

Animal studies are underway examining the influence of treatment with magnesium on outcome from TBI (50).

Grant L. Iverson, Ph.D., Professor 
Faculty of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry 
The University of British Columbia 
Senior Researcher 
British Columbia Mental Health & Addiction Services 
University Phone: (604) 822-7588 
Hospital Phone: (604) 524-7567 
Best Email:


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