Jan 29, 2015
Shedding New Light on CTE

In an exciting development in the area of assessing and treating concussions, a UCLA-based study is reporting that positron emission tomography (PET), a scan typically used to measure nascent Alzheimer’s disease, has allowed them to identify tau protein in the brains of five living, retired National Football League players who reported a history of concussion and varying levels of cognitive and emotional degeneration.

Tau protein is an insidious, microscopic protein that strangles brain cells and has been linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)–a disease discovered in former NFL players Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, who both committed suicide. Previously, in cases such as Duerson’s and Seau’s, CTE could only be diagnosed following a brain autopsy.
Julian Bailes, MD, Director of the Brain Injury Research Institute, Chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at NorthShore University HealthSystem, and one of the study’s authors, calls the recent discovery “the holy grail” of CTE research.

“Discovering the effects of prior brain trauma earlier opens up possibilities for symptom treatment and prevention,” he told Medical News Today. “It’s not definitive, and there’s a lot we still need to discover to help these people, but it’s very compelling. It’s a new discovery.”

For the study, which was published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, researchers examined the brains of five former NFL players who were 45 years of age or older and had reported one or more concussions. Some participants, none of whom played the same position, described having mood swings or cognitive issues.

Scientists from UCLA used a brain-imaging tool that was originally developed for examining neurological changes linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

According to Medical News Today, during the study:

scientists from UCLA injected a chemical marker they made named FDDNP, which binds to deposits of amyloid beta “plaques” and neurofibrillary tau “tangles” (telltale signs of Alzheimer’s)–then they viewed it using a PET (positron emission tomography) scan. The researchers were able to identify where in the brain these irregular proteins built up.

Participants received intravenous injections of FDDNP, while the researchers then performed PET brain scans and compared them to those of healthy men with comparable Body Mass Index, education, age, and family history of dementia.

The scientists discovered that in comparison to healthy men, the NFL players had increased levels of FDDNP in the amygdala and subcortical regions of the brain–the areas that control emotions, behavior, memory, and learning. Participants who had a greater number of concussions had higher levels of FDDNP.

Bailes and study lead author Gary Small, PhD, said they have applied for several grants, including one through the National Institutes of Health. In September, the NFL donated $30 million to the NIH for brain injury research.

“Early detection of tau proteins may help us to understand what is happening sooner in the brains of these injured athletes,” Small, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA, told Medical News Today. “Our findings may also guide us in developing strategies and interventions to protect those with early symptoms, rather than try to repair damage once it becomes extensive.”

As word of the study’s success spreads, and excitement for the PET technique grows, many concussion experts are calling for cautious optimism.

“This is the holy grail if it works. This is what we’ve been waiting for, but it looks like it’s probably preliminary to say they’ve got it,” Dr. Robert Cantu, a senior adviser to the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee and co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, told ESPN.com. “But if they do have it, this is exactly what we need.”

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