CTE Marker Seen in Living Football Players

Brain disease caused by repeated concussions can only be diagnosed after death at this point

By Robert Preidt

HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Sept. 26, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- A potential marker, or warning sign, for a devastating brain disease caused by repeated concussions has been identified in living people for the first time by researchers.

Until now, it has only been possible to diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) after death.

Scientists in Boston studied the brains of 23 former college and professional football players, 50 non-athletes with Alzheimer's disease, and 18 non-athletes without brain disease.

Levels of the biomarker CCL11 were normal in the brains of the non-athletes without brain disease and the non-athletes with Alzheimer's disease, but were significantly elevated in the brains of former football players with CTE.

In the former players with CTE, there was also a link between the number of years playing football and CCL11 levels.

"Not only did this research show the potential for CTE diagnosis during life, but it also offers a possible mechanism for distinguishing between CTE and other diseases," said study first author Jonathan Cherry, a postdoctoral fellow in neurology at Boston University Medical Center.

"By making it possible to distinguish between normal individuals, individuals with Alzheimer's disease and CTE, therapies can become more targeted, and hopefully more effective," Chery added in a university news release.

Further research is needed to determine if elevated levels of CCL11 occur early or late in the CTE disease process and whether CCL11 levels might be able to predict the severity of the brain disease, the researchers noted.

The report follows last week's news that Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end who committed suicide in April while serving time in prison on a murder conviction, had a severe case of CTE. More than 100 National Football League players have been posthumously diagnosed with CTE.

The new study was published Sept. 26 in the journal PLoS One.

"The findings of this study are the early steps toward identifying CTE during life. Once we can successfully diagnose CTE in living individuals, we will be much closer to discovering treatments for those who suffer from it," said study senior author Dr. Ann McKee, director of the CTE Center at Boston University.