Recent scientific findings suggest that an experimental brain scan can detect early signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE while the person is still living.
Current medical practices can only diagnose CTE when the patient is already deceased until researchers at Boston University's CTE Center reported that positron emission tomography scan can detect abnormal brain tissues similar to that of a deceased CTE patient.
Tau Protein, The Hallmark Of CTE
Tau protein, a known biomarker of several neurodegenerative diseases like CTE, Alzheimer's and certain types of dementia, can also be found through an experimental PET scan.
Tau proteins become toxic substances that eventually destroy brain tissues according to lead investigator Robert Stern, director of clinical research at BU's CTE Clinic.
The researchers compared the brain images of 31 control subjects with no history of head trauma or psychological illness to those of 26 former National Football League players exhibiting CTE-related symptoms.
The experimental PET scan showed higher amounts of abnormal tau proteins in the group of former NFL players than the control subjects. The authors said results cannot be interpreted on an individual basis since the comparisons were done in groups.
"A group of living former NFL players with cognitive and neuropsychiatric symptoms had higher tau levels measured by PET than controls in brain regions that are affected by CTE and did not have elevated amyloid-beta levels," the researchers reported in the study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.
It is also noteworthy that concussions did not necessarily cause the neurodegenerative diseases of former NFL athletes and hundreds of war veterans. Instead, repetitive blows to the head similar to what football athletes experience during their game appeared to be the cause of this disease.
"We need to study larger numbers of people with greater variability in their history of being hit [in the head] repeatedly and in their history of CTE-related symptoms," Stern said. "In the next five years or so, we will be able to diagnose and detect [CTE] during life."
Slow Death By CTE
Individuals living with CTE experience differences in their cognitive, emotional, and behavioral capacity. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the blows do not have to be high impact. Symptoms tend to appear years after the onset of the disease.
A study in 2017 reported that 177 former players of contact sports were diagnosed with CTE. This included 110 out of 111 brain scans of former NFL players, 48 of 53 college athletes, and 9 out of 14 semi-professional players.
Stern said their study was a crucial step in finally diagnosing CTE in living persons. He added that there was a lot of misconception about the nature of CTE that it calls for more in-depth scientific research.