Brain scans on former NFL players detect abnormal proteins found in CTE

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By Shamard Charles, M.D.

An experimental brain scan can now detect abnormal proteins in the brains of living former NFL players affected by chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

The study, conducted by a team of researchers in Boston and Arizona, used positron emission tomography scans in a small group of former NFL players with persistent cognitive, mood and behavioral symptoms such as depression, rage and memory loss characteristic of CTE.

They found that tau — the abnormal protein that forms after the destruction of normal brain matter — was present at significantly higher levels on the PET scans of the 26 players, compared to those who had not participated in contact sports or experienced symptoms. The tau deposits were also seen in the same specific areas, in the same general pattern, of previously studied brains diagnosed with CTE on autopsy. Notably, the scientists found no relationship between the amount of tau seen on the PET scans and the severity of behavior and mood symptoms or performance on cognitive tests. The results of the study were published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

This isn’t the first time tau has been found in a living human being. In 2017, doctors found a unique pattern of CTE in the brain of former Minnesota Vikings linebacker Fred McNeill. But doctors were unsure if this was a finding specific to McNeil or if this was a trend among players who exhibited CTE symptoms — so they performed more tests.

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