February 1, 2013

CTE Discovered in Living Athletes For the First Time

by Levin & Perconti

Earlier this week we discussed the new lawsuit filed by the family of Junior Seau alleging that the National Football League failed to properly explain the long-term brain injury risks caused by the game, hid information, and encouraged game tactics that increased the risk of long-term harm. Seau committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest last May. After an autopsy was performed on his brain it was determined that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopahty (CTE). CTE is essentially a form of brain damage that causes a myriad of problem, including dementia, depression, and other behavioral changes. In has been linked to many former athletes, particularly those in high-contact sports.

In the past, CTE could only be identified by examining a player’s brain after their passing. This obviously made it difficult to fully understand the scope of the problem, because only certain individuals would have the full investigation performed after their death to possibly target the condition.

However, as the New York Times reported last week, all of that may soon change as, for the first time ever, medical experts seem to have identified CTE in living patients. New techniques allowed doctors to see the degenerative brain conditions without the need for tissue samples from the deceased.

A New Frontier in Understanding CTE
As published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychology, researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) scans in several retired NFL players. Those players had been suffering from depression, mood swings, and other sudden behavioral changes. Those scans allowed researchers to identify the build up of “tau proteins” in the players brain. The expansion of these proteins is a marker of CTE, causing a range of problems in brain function.

To be sure, this initial study is not definitive. The sample size is small and there is always a chance that outside causes may have led researchers to false findings. For example, some have already questioned the use of certain dye used in the study. While much more will be refined in upcoming months and years, the fact that researchers are working down this path in any way is a very positive sign for those who are hoping to see experts develop treatments and prevention strategies for those affected.

Identifying CTE in living patients was defined as the “holy grail” of CTE research. If these findings are backed up, this is the first step in developing strategies that may help slow the spread of the problem in these athletes. Testing different treatments is impossible if there is no way to measure their effectiveness--either at fixing the degeneration or slowing its spread However, with use of PET scans, the door may now be opened and doctors can identifying the effect, if any, of particular treatments on each patient.

Importantly, while CTE is almost always discussed in the context of athletes and soldiers, the lessons learned from this research may have implications for everyone. Understanding problems like dementia and Alzheimer’s may be linked to these issues. The more we know about how all of this develops and may be prevented is great news for anyone who may one day face a brain injury of any stripe.

See Other Blog Posts:

Brain Injuries On the Field -- Football Concerns Mount

Equipment Changes May Limit Sports Related Brain Injuries