Study Suggests New Imaging Techniques Could Detect Brain Disease in Living NFL Athletes

Patriots running back Stevan Ridley (22) suffered a concussion in the AFC Championship. (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)

Health and well-being have taken on a whole new meaning in terms of the NFL.

A large group of researchers have shed light on brain disease connected to head impacts. For the first time, evidence shows changes in the brains of football players who are still alive.

Thanks to new brain imaging techniques, the findings of a study released Tuesday showed that Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy (CTE), a brain disease linked to concussions, were found in five retired NFL players (ages 45-to-73 who suffered at lease one concussion while playing). CTE has been connected to depression and dementia. More specifically, abnormal tau proteins were found in these five players.

Tau proteins do not necessarily predict the development of CTE, nor do they confirm the existence of it, but it’s the first time that the atypical proteins that can lead to CTE have been detected in brain imagining scans. Previously, the proteins could only be detected via autopsy.

According to the results which were published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, further development of the study could facilitate early “recognition and intervention of trauma-related neurodegeneration through premorbid detection.” It’s a “critical first step to developing interventions to prevent symptoms onset and progression,” according to researchers who conducted the study thanks to research based off of findings at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

The study is still small, and much more research needs to be done, but looking at it from a broader view, will players who show these abnormal tau proteins to the point of CTE on imaging scans quit the sport and retire early in order to avoid long-term health consequences?

Former San Diego Charger Junior Seau committed suicide last May, and his autopsy showed that his brain had CTE. Other players such as former Atlanta Falcon Ray Easterling and former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson have committed suicide and were diagnosed with CTE after the fact.

Researchers are looking for preventative treatments to protect players rather than for treatments meant to repair the damage.

There are currently 4,000 former NFL players suing the NFL for alleging that the league failed to protect players from the long-term effects of concussions.

The five players in the recent study were a linebacker, two offensive lineman, and a defensive lineman. They showed signs of mild depression, dementia, and cognitive impairment.

This preliminary data indicates that more research must be done in order to answer the question, statistically. Perhaps the NFL could contribute even more money to ongoing brain research, and screenings for active and retired players alike.

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Topics: Brain Injury, NFL, Suicide

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