NFL Brains Show Signs of CTE
John Keilman, writing in the Chicago Tribune about a study published January 22 in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, suggests that the “Holy Grail” of spotting brain injuries in athletes may have been discovered by work done by renowned researcher Dr. Julian Bailes. Dr. Bailes is a nationally recognized researcher regarding the impact of brain injury on brain function.
Dr. Bailes, who has more than 100 peer review papers to his credit, has been instrumental in the understanding of the clinical evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease found in individuals who have been subjected to multiple concussions and other forms of head injury. Dr. Bailes is also a founding member and director of the Brain Injury Research Institute, which focuses on the study of traumatic brain injuries and their prevention at Evanston's NorthShore Neurological Institute, Chicago, and the University of California at Los Angeles.
Dr. Bailes and his colleagues used brain scans to look at the brains of five former NFL footballs players, all of whom had experienced concussions, and compared them with the brains of five non-football players of approximately the same age. The researchers were looking for signs of the dementia-like condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE—a condition that is traditionally diagnosed only after death.
What they found in the scans of the football players was significantly more tau—which is a protein that is believed to build up and coat damaged brain cells—than they found in the brains of the control group. Doctors also found evidence of tau in the brains of retired football players who had committed suicide.
In the study, according to Keilman, the investigators injected the ex-players with a chemical designed to highlight tau deposits during a brain scan. When they compared the players’ scans with those of the control subjects who had not suffered concussions, they found that the players' scans displayed vivid bursts of red, yellow and green.
Keilman quoted Dr. Bailes, the principal investigator, as saying that more research is needed to confirm the findings, but if they hold up, they could lead to new therapies and preventive measures to combat the toll of repetitive concussions. “For me, the holy grail of CTE is being able to diagnose it when someone is still alive, where you have the chance to make a difference or help somebody else, " he said.
Critics of the study question its reliability because of the small number of patients participating; that the presence of tau may not correlate with the presence of CTE and that the players’ symptoms of cognitive decline and depression could have other causes.