TORONTO – A sinister protein tucked away in the brain tissue of a string of deceased NFL players has been identified in living athletes via a brain scan that could be used to better understand concussions.
Scientists say their findings could change the face of sports medicine, especially in identifying concussions and their lingering consequences.
For their study, UCLA researchers scoured the brains of five living retired NFL players who have suffered concussions and uncovered tau proteins, which are abnormal cells typically found only in autopsies.
A buildup of tau protein also leads to CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy – a condition that has played a role in the deaths of some former NHL players.
Previous research has suggested that professional athletes who are exposed to repetitive brain injuries may develop the degenerative condition.
Earlier this month, the disease was linked to the death of Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau. He fatally shot himself last year.
Meanwhile, reports pointed to CTE in other players’ deaths in the past, such as Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling and Shane Dronett.
Outside of the NFL, CTE has also been named as an issue in the deaths of hockey players Derek Boogard and Bob Probert, reports say.
Symptoms of CTE also include suicidal behaviour, memory loss, confusion, progressive dementia and personality changes.
Last month, Boston University revealed its findings in what was considered the world’s largest study of the brains of dead professional athletes. They found that the majority were suffering from CTE – 68 of the 85 subjects were former pro football players.
The left image shows a normal brain scan and middle and right images show scans of pro football players from the study. The green and red colors demonstrate the higher level of tau protein found in the brain. Note the higher levels (more red and green) in the players’ scans. Scans of the players in the study reflect differing levels of tau protein and follow a pattern of progression similar to the tau deposits that have been observed at autopsy in CTE cases. (Photo courtesy UCLA)
While doctors may have located tau protein in these deceased mens’ brains, they were startled to find the buildup in living, retired athletes.
“It’s definite, we found it, it’s there,” Dr. Julian Bailes, who co-authored the study, told CNN.
“It was there consistently and in all the right places.”
The full report was published Tuesday night in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.
The study’s subjects were five retired NFLers between 45 and 73 years old.
They represented a range of positions, from linebacker, quarterback, guard, centre and defensive lineman.
The men had symptoms of depression, while some had “mild” cognitive impairment and another had dementia.
For the first time, the UCLA researchers used a brain-imaging tool to create a “window into the brain” and uncover what was going on, and where these abnormal proteins accumulate.
The tool was developed to study Alzheimer’s patients. They say it’s the first to be used for CTE research.
In the process, players are injected with a chemical marker that binds to “plaques” and “tangles” – hallmarks of Alzheimer’s.
They then looked at the subjects’ brains using position emission tomography or PET scans.
The scans of the NFL players were then compared with normal, healthy men.
Results showed that the NFL players had “elevated” levels of the chemical marker, which had migrated to the brain’s amygdala and subcortical region.
These areas of the brain control learning, memory, behaviour, emotions and other mental and physical functions.
The players who had more concussions than the other subjects had even higher levels of the chemical marker in the brain.
Prior to this study’s glimpse into the tau buildup in the brain, measuring the protein was only done after a player was dead.
The scientists say that finding it in living players is akin to the “holy grail” of concussion research.
“It is the holy grail of CTE research to be able to identify those who are suffering from the syndrome early, while they’re still alive,” the authors said in a statement.
They note that the method is non-invasive and could be used as early detection of CTE in athletes.
That way, patients could receive treatment and prevention care.
Meanwhile, NFL and NHL athletes have raised concerns of the dangers of potential brain injuries in their sports.
About 4,000 NFL players and their families are suing the league, alleging the league failed to protect players from the long-term effects of concussions.
The researchers note that the study is small and that larger follow-up studies are needed to understand the value of detecting these tau proteins early.