As the first ALS concussion lawsuit goes to trial, researchers may have made a breakthrough in concussion detection and treatment. For decades, organizations like the National Football League (NFL) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) have known that the concussions sustained while playing football cause long-lasting side effects. However, until recent years, very little had been done to prevent serious damage. With a huge increase in concussion research, doctors may finally be able to do something they never have before – see concussion damage in living patients.
It’s not hard to image that studying the brain comes with logistical challenges. The brain is kept safely stored inside the skull, so doctors rely on imaging techniques to evaluate it. While imaging techniques have been invaluable for the advancement of medicine, they often fall quite short when looking at the damage caused by concussions. Currently, individuals with chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE (a degenerative neurocognitive condition associated with repeated concussions) can only be diagnosed postmortem.
A new study holds a promising start to what could mean concussion diagnosis in real time. Researchers looked at 26 former NFL players who were suffering from thinking, mood, or behavior problems and 31 similarly aged men without these symptoms or head injuries. The patients were given PET scans where a radioactive tracer is injected into the body that binds itself to various substances, thus making itself visible on the scan. Researchers used tracers that bind to a protein called beta amyloid in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, researchers used tracers that bind to another protein called Tau, which is associated with CTE. The study determined the former NFL players had higher levels of Tau as compared to the other patients. Additionally, the study was able to confirm Alzheimer’s and CTE are two distinct neurological disorders.
While more research is needed to better understand concussions, this new use of existing diagnostic testing techniques could provide the breakthrough needed to help keep football players safe. Unfortunately, the study comes too late for many former collegiate football players. The NCAA knew concussions sustained during play could have lifelong effects on players, but chose to not to take appropriate measures to protect players.