Possible Breakthrough in Detecting CTE in Living Patients

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Researchers at the Boston University CTE Center announced recently what they believe is a major breakthrough in the detection of the neurodegenerative disease found in people with repeated head injuries.

According to a new study, researchers now believe they may have found a way to detect chronic traumatic encephalopathy in living patients, overcoming the biggest obstacle of being able to detect the disease only in the brains of dead patients.

The study examined the brains of 23 former college and professional football players, and compared them to the brains of 50 non-athletes with Alzheimer’s disease and 18 non-athletes (as a control group). According to the study, researchers observed that [biomarker] CCL11 levels were normal in the brains of the non-athlete controls and non-athletes with Alzheimer’s disease, but were significantly elevated in the brains of individuals with CTE.   

Next, they compared the degree of elevation of the biomarker to the number of years those individuals played football and found that there was a positive correlation between those levels and the number of years played.

This is encouraging news to Dr. Mark Alberts, physician in chief of the Hartford HealthCare Ayer Neuroscience Institute, who says there are many challenges in detecting CTE in live patients.

“I agree that this biomarker study is a potentially important advance,” Alberts says. “[But] the study was limited since it looked at a small number of patients and I did not see any longitudinal data. However, if confirmed it would be a very significant advance especially for athletes at risk of CTE,” he says.

Alberts also says he was surprised to hear that former Patriots tight end and convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez reportedly had a severe case of CTE found after his death. (In an unrelated study published this summer in The Journal of the American Medical Association, 110 of 111 brains of deceased former NFL players examined by a neuropatholgist were found to have CTE.)

“He was relatively young with a relatively short playing career,” he says. “In my mind, this may indicate that there are other factors besides head trauma exposure that may determine the risk and severity of CTE. Perhaps these are genetic factors or unidentified environmental factors. So, this [case] really creates more questions than answers.” 

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