New technology is enabling researchers to detect elevated levels of the protein tau in the brains of living professional football players with cognitive and neuropsychiatric symptoms. Elevated tau levels are usually found during autopsies on patients’ brains to diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by multiple blows to the head. Medical professionals are currently unable to diagnose CTE except posthumously. The study was published this month in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Researchers with the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix used flortaucipir position-emission tomography, or PET, imaging and detected higher buildups of tau in various areas of the brains of 26 living former NFL players compared to control subjects.
“We were able to show small but statistically significant increases of tau deposits, particularly in those regions that were suggested to be preferentially affected by CTE,” study author Eric Reiman, M.D., told MedPage Today. “We were able to show the tau deposits were associated with the [number of] years of football playing.”
The study’s results are a step toward enabling physicians to use flortaucipir PET scans to detect abnormal tau from CTE while a patient is still living. But Robert Stern, PhD, of Boston University School of Medicine cautioned in a statement, “we’re not there yet. 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.”
The study’s authors are working with others on another CTE study involving former NFL players as well as former college football players and people with no history of contact sports play. Initial results are expected in early 2020.
Last year, Boston University announced new research that indicated CTE starts faster and earlier than previously thought. This finding was based on examinations of the brains of four deceased teenage athletes, during which researchers found signs that CTE was already beginning to develop in these patients days to weeks after a head injury.
Dr. Lee E. Goldstein, the study’s lead author, said the study provided the best evidence to date that the degenerative brain disease CTE is not caused simply by concussions, but by any blow to the head.