There has been a growing awareness of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by repeated head trauma causing a series of otherwise non-dangerous concussions. In 2015, the movie “Concussion” taught the world about the condition and its apparent prevalence among football players. The disease is thought to affect others experiencing mild brain trauma repeatedly, such as members of the military and domestic violence survivors.
The disease has been linked to cognitive issues such as dementia, emotional dysregulation leading to mood swings, depression and suicide, and possibly even violent behavior.
Unfortunately, an accurate diagnosis of CTE can only be obtained by closely studying the brain during an autopsy. The lack of a diagnostic test for living sufferers — and especially for people who are asymptomatic — has kept doctors and scientists from being able to determine who is at the most risk, how widespread the disease may be, and how its sufferers could be treated.
Recently, some progress has been made, according to a recent study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. The study, though small, indicates that people experiencing symptoms of CTE can be differentiated on brain scans from people suffering from Alzheimer’s and people with no suspicion on CTE.
The researchers recruited five veterans and two active duty military personnel who had suffered brain injuries and were experiencing CTE-like symptoms. For control, the military personnel were compared to 15 retired football players who had also suffered brain injuries and had CTE-like symptoms, along with two dozen people with Alzheimer’s dementia and 28 healthy people.
Each participant was injected with a radioactive molecular tracer called FDDNP which is known to bind with abnormal brain proteins. Then, a PET scan was performed, allowing the researchers to see the tracer’s radioactive signature, which indicates the presence of those abnormal proteins.
The result was a striking similarity in the brain scans of the military personnel and the retired football players — the people suspected of having CTE. The scans of the Alzheimer’s patients and the healthy subjects showed noticeably different patterns. Moreover, when the scans were compared with deceased football players known to have CTE, those brain scans were consistent with those of the live football players and military personnel.
The study is limited by its small sample size and the fact that it didn’t include any asymptomatic people who had suffered similar levels of brain trauma as the participants. And, even though the results were promising, a reliable test for living patients is still a few years away, at the least.
It does provide hope that answers about the prevalence of CTE and possible treatments could be on the way.