Researchers may be closing in on a way to check athletes while they’re alive for signs of a degenerative brain disease that’s been linked to frequent head blows. Experimental scans found higher levels of an abnormal protein tied to the disease in a study of former National Football League players who were having mood and thinking problems.
It’s the first time a major study has tested these scans for detecting chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE; which is only diagnosed now after death, with brain autopsies. Doctors are searching for a way to tell when players, veterans or others with concussions or other head injuries; which are at risk for permanent damage. It’s too soon to know if the scans will enable that—so far they only show that these athletes are different as a group; they can’t be used to say a particular player does or does not have CTE.

Degenerative brain disease

This image provided by The New England Journal of Medicine in April 2019; which shows a series brain scans from former NFL players. As a group, they were found to have higher levels of an abnormal protein; so than a comparison group of healthy men, indicated by red and yellow patches. The protein is a hallmark of a degenerative brain disease that’s been linked to repeated head blows.
They were given positron emission tomography, or PET scans; so in which a radioactive tracer is injected that binds to various substances and makes them visible on the scans. Several of these tracers are used now to look for a protein called beta amyloid in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. An experimental tracer that doctors are testing binds to another protein; tau, which is the key one that’s been implicated in CTE.
Men in the study had both types of tracers. Tau levels were higher in the players compared to the others, but their amyloid levels were similar, confirming that CTE is a different disease than Alzheimer’s. The more years of play in tackle football across all levels, the greater the amount of tau detect. However, there was no relationship between tau levels and the severity of mood and thinking symptoms.

Symptoms consistent with CTE

Researchers think the study may have too small to detect a difference or that tau may not the only factor involve. There’s a lot more work to be done to develop a diagnostic” tool using these scans, said Dr. Michael Weiner an imaging expert at UCSF who is involve in other CTE research. Government grants and Avid Radiopharmaceuticals, which makes the tracers, funded the study. Some authors work or consult for the company.

Mike Adamle, a former running back for the Chicago Bears and sports announcer, has say they has symptoms consistent with CTE, and has evaluate by Stern at the Boston research center though they was not part of the current study. They had more than a few concussions, Adamle said. If you were running, everybody kind of led with their head. Back then, it was a test of your macho man stuff.

The illness has devastating, said his wife, Kim. They couldn’t remember his lunch or they couldn’t remember his lines on the air and lost multiple jobs, they said. If a test could have show they was at risk and given him a chance to consider quitting play, they would have definitely taken note, Mike Adamle said.