According to a team of researchers in Boston and Arizona, we may now be able to detect abnormal markers related to the brain condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in living adults.
CTE is a unique condition in that it can only be diagnosed during an autopsy, so while we believe their may be indications of the condition in living adults, there’s not much we can do to test for it while the person is still living. However, a new experimental brain scan may soon change all that.
Researchers say that the brain scan can detect abnormal levels of tau protein in the brain. Tau protein, which is an abnormal protein that develops after the destruction of normal brain matter, was present at significantly higher rates in brain scans of 26 former football players compared to those who did not participate in contact sports. Moreover, these tau proteins were located in the same areas in the same patterns as those found in previously studied brains diagnosed with CTE on autopsy.
“The results of this study provide initial support for the flortaucipir PET scan to detect abnormal tau from CTE during life,” said lead author Robert Stern, professor of neurology, neurosurgery, and anatomy and neurobiology at the Boston University School of Medicine. “This is an exciting development because it’s the first step in helping us answer many of the questions we have regarding the disease, such as why do some people get it and some others do not? What are some of the risk factors? The protective factors? And most importantly, how do we prevent it.”
Brain Research Breakthrough
Dr. Eric Reiman, executive director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix and co-author of the study said the results also show a difference between CTE progression and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Our findings suggest that mild cognitive, emotional and behavioral symptoms observed in athletes with a history of repetitive impacts are not attributable to AD, and they provide a foundation for additional research studies to advance the scientific understanding, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of CTE in living persons,” Reiman.
CTE is a neurodegenerative disease that is commonly found in athletes with a history of repeated blows to the head, including concussions and subconcussive hits. These hits to the head can lead to buildup of abnormal proteins that kill healthy brain cells and cause mood changes or other mental health issues years down the road. The new brain scans are a step in the right direction, but Stern wants to conduct more studies using the scans in order to expand our knowledge of exactly what tau protein formation means and how to best treat patients with protein expression.
“We’re not there yet,” Stern said. “These results do not mean that we can now diagnose CTE during life or that this experimental test is ready for use in the clinic. Maybe I’m being cautious, but we are a ways away from using this technology in a clinically meaningful way.”
Even if it can’t be used quite yet in a clinical setting, it’s a big breakthrough for potentially saving both brains and lives in the not-so-distant future.