PET Study Finds Characteristic Pattern of Protein Deposits in Brains of Retired NFL Players
A brain-imaging technique may enable the early detection of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), according to a study published April 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

CTE is a neurodegenerative disease characterized by cognitive and behavioral symptoms linked to traumatic brain injury. One major hallmark of CTE is the abnormal accumulation of tau protein aggregates in brain areas tied to mood and cognition; however, there is currently no definitive approach for clinically diagnosing the condition in living humans.

Bennet Omalu, one of the authors of the study, is chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County and a clinical professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at UC Davis Medical Center. Over a decade ago while conducting an autopsy on a former professional football player, Omalu found CTE that revealed neuropathological changes consistent with long-term repetitive concussive brain injury. He since has found the condition in other football players, amateur and professional wrestlers, and veterans, igniting controversy and national interest in the appropriate safety measures.

In the recent study, a team led by UCLA researchers used PET to detect abnormal protein aggregates in 14 retired professional American football players with an increased risk of developing CTE due to repetitive concussions and subconcussions, as well as persistent cognitive and behavioral problems.

By injecting a tau-sensitive brain-imaging agent into the participants during PET scanning, the researchers detected greater tau accumulation in the dorsal midbrain and the amygdala (regions involved in regulating pain and negative emotions) in the football players, compared with control participants with normal cognitive abilities and patients with Alzheimer's disease, which can be misdiagnosed as CTE.

The researchers say the findings could help lead to better identification of brain disorders in athletes and would allow doctors and scientists to test treatments that might help delay the progression of the disease before significant brain damage and symptoms emerge.
SOURCE: UC Davis Health System