Researchers examining the brain tissue of deceased National Football League (NFL) players have linked abnormal levels of a specific brain protein to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). CTE was first discovered in the brain tissue of deceased NFL players 15 years ago.
CTE is a degenerative brain disease—a type of traumatic brain injury commonly associated with the repeated head blows often suffered by professional football players. A detailed article on the current research is available here.
At present, pathologists have only had the ability to confirm the presence of CTE in the brains of deceased players donated to research by their families. The authors of the study hope their results will lead to clinical tests that can diagnose CTE in living players. Such testing would help doctors identify the early warning signs and associated risk factors related to the condition.
A team of investigators—led by Dr. Robert Stern of Boston University—examined images taken of brains of 26 deceased NFL players—all of whom exhibited CTE symptoms while alive. The images revealed a notable increase in Tau Proteins versus the control group of men who had not played football. Those levels appear to increase with the number of years a subject played.
Results of the Study
Pathologists using Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans were able to uncover a relationship between an unusually high level of Tau Proteins in brain tissue and the presence of CTE.
While earlier studies were only able to detect elevated levels of Tau Proteins in isolated instances, the current study provides the first opportunity for researchers to compare brain tissue from former NFL players to a control group of similar-aged men of who had not played the sport.
Looking Towards the Future
Researchers are calling the study’s findings encouraging. They extend hope that a reliable way to identify abnormal levels of Tau Proteins could give doctors an opportunity to help identify Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in living patients. Further research could someday allow doctors to monitor how patients respond to potential future treatments.
The study’s authors admit a diagnostic test is perhaps still years away—and could likely require additional markers as found in a patient’s blood and spinal fluid. They say more work is needed to develop a reliable test for the condition.
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