Study Finds Brain Damage In Living Football Players — Is A CTE Diagnosis Next?

Researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles have discovered brain damage in living ex-professional football players, a big-time revelation they hope could lend itself, eventually, to the first diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in a living football player:

Brain scans performed on five former NFL players revealed images of the protein that causes football-related brain damage — the first time researchers have identified signs of the crippling disease in living players.

Researchers who conducted the pilot study at UCLA described the findings as a significant step toward being able to diagnose the disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, in living patients.

“I’ve been saying that identifying CTE in a living person is the Holy Grail for this disease and for us to be able make advances in treatment,” said Dr. Julian Bailes, a Chicago neurosurgeon and one of the study’s co-authors. “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.”

Right now, doctors can only diagnose CTE post-mortem — and they have in 34 former football players, including Junior Seau, who committed suicide last May. But this study of five former players, all of whom suffered at least one concussion, found “a pattern consistent with the distribution of tau,” an abnormal protein linked to CTE, “in CTE brains that have been studied following autopsy.”

The study is a small one, and its findings are preliminary. But if the preliminary findings “hold up in future studies, this may be an opportunity to identify CTE before players have symptoms so we can develop preventative treatment,” the study’s lead author said.

What future findings could also do, though, is further the discussion about whether the problem is concussions or football itself. Other studies have suggested the latter could be the case, and this seems to hint in that direction. Though all five players suffered at least one concussion, one was a little-used back-up quarterback who had suffered just one — and he still ended up with brain trauma. Building on this research and developing “preventative treatment” to address CTE would be a major breakthrough, one that will likely take years more of research. What we could find out, though, is that the only way to prevent CTE is to not play football. And if the discussion moves past how to protect players to if we can, there are going to be a lot of attitudes to change.