Researchers know that abnormal proteins, called tau proteins, somehow play a role in severe brain diseases, such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is caused by repeated hits to the head (such as concussions) like that which occurs in sports like football and boxing. However, these proteins have only been traceable after the person has died, and an autopsy has been performed.
But that soon could change, as researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, may have developed a method that could identify these tau proteins in people who are still living.
"Early detection of tau proteins may help us to understand what is happening sooner in the brains of these injured athletes," study researcher Dr. Gary Small, a professor at UCLA, said in a statement. "Our findings may also guide us in developing strategies and interventions to protect those with early symptoms, rather than try to repair damage once it becomes extensive."
Tau proteins and chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- which occurs when brain tissue begins to degenerate and tau proteins build up in the brain -- have been in the news recently with the high-profile suicides of NFL players Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, as well as Penn football player Owen Thomas.
People with chronic traumatic encephalopathy have experienced repeated brain traumas and concussions, according to the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. Boxers had been known to be affected by this condition at higher degrees than other people for around a century now, but more recent research and reports identify other groups who are at risk, such as people in the military.
The preliminary results of the small study from UCLA researchers are published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, and show that it may be possible to detect the tau proteins using brain imaging in five former, living NFL players. The players were all at least age 45 when recruited for the study, and had had at least one concussion before, as well as mood and cognitive symptoms. The participants all played different positions in their careers, including defensive lineman, quarterback, guard, linebacker and center lineman.
Researchers injected a chemical marker called "FDDNP," which binds to both amyloid beta plaques -- known to play a role in Alzheimer's disease -- and in tau "tangles." Then, they had the participants undergo PET scans to see where these proteins were in the brain, compared with other healthy men.
Researchers found that the NFL players had more buildup of these proteins than the healthy men, particularly in the brain regions associated with memory, emotions, learning and behavior. And the more concussions a person had, the more proteins the researchers observed in his brain.
"The FDDNP binding patterns in the players' scans were consistent with the tau deposit patterns that have been observed at autopsy in CTE cases," study researcher Dr. Jorge R. Barrio, who is a professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, said in a statement.
The NFL players also scored lower on a cognitive ability test and higher on a depression test than the healthy men, researchers found.
It should be noted that UCLA owns patents on the FDDNP chemical marker used in the study, which was invented by the study researchers.