A new study out of Boston University has identified a biomarker that appears to be associated with CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain disease so common in former American football players. CTE is currently only diagnosable through direct tissue examination after death and while this is not in itself a way to diagnose CTE in the living, it appears to be a big step in that direction.
Boston University’s brain lab has been at the forefront of researching brain injuries caused by long-term, repeated blows to the head that are inherent in football. It’s where a number of former NFL players have donated their brains, or pledged to donate their brains after their deaths. Science from the Boston brain bank led to this summer’s troubling study that nearly every NFL brain that was studied showed signs of CTE.
All this bad news has led to lots of speculation about the future of the game, as well as an uptick in stories about younger players giving up football in their primes out of fear for their future neurological health. But those decisions have been based on the evolving overall picture of how risky playing the sport can be. There’s no way currently to diagnose a living person with CTE, which is where this new Boston U. study comes in.
The new research focuses on a protein called CCL11. The study (which you can read free in the public-access science journal PLoS One) shows CCL11 has been proven to “play a role in neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration,” and indeed, it found a connection between elevated levels of CCL11 in the brain and years of playing football. The researchers also found that these elevated levels of CCL11 are correlated with CTE, but not with Alzheimer’s Disease.
That last bit is particularly important. Part of the problem with diagnosing CTE in the living—as opposed to cutting in the brains of the dead—is that CTE brains show signs that are common in other neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s. A build-up of so-called tau proteins is one effect that seems to be common to both. If you can find a biomarker that’s particular to CTE, then that’s a big step toward distinguishing it in a living person—something that will eventually require a battery of tests, most likely, so doctors can be sure.
None of this is particularly good news for the survival of America’s most popular sport. Pundits aplenty have chimed in to argue that CTE studies presage the death of the NFL. So far they’ve been an little over-eager in their foretelling of doom. While the dire reality of football and brain injury have turned away a few fans and players, they are in the minority. The ties that bind towns and colleges and families to football are strong, and not undone by a few bad headlines.
At least, that’s the case so far. In terms of a player’s decision-making about his future, knowing football is bad in general is a far cry from knowing that you personally are beginning to show the signs of a horrible brain disease. We don’t have a real-time CTE test yet. But look at this research and know that it’s coming.
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