Groundbreaking research has been conducted by Boston University that might have found a protein that can diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in living patients. This potential discovery will surely impact the lives of millions of individuals who play college and professional sports and has the potential to change the course of American society. Since the movie Concussion, starring Will Smith, much concern has been brought to CTE and the potential impact it can have on the physical and emotional health of people who might have it. Problem is that CTE can only be diagnosed by performing testing on brain tissue, which means test can only be performed after death. Researchers are attempting to find a means to diagnose CTE in living patients, which might have been found.
How are Athletes Responding?
Many college and professional athletes are relatively unaware of the potential long-term effects of CTE, which is caused by repetitive head trauma. The National Football League (NFL) has seen an increase in players retiring from the game due to health concerns rather than age or inability to play the game. Among those are linebacker Chris Borland, offensive lineman John Urshel and wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, who later reported he would donate his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation. Other NFL players like D’Brickashaw Ferguson reports that he didn’t fully realize the impact of CTE until he saw Concussion.
An Explanation for Past Behaviors?
Relatively little is known about CTE and many questions remain. Aaron Hernandez, former New England Patriots tight end, committed suicide in April 2017 while in prison for being convicted of murder. Hernandez was a promising young star with a troubled background. His murder sentence put an end to his NFL career. An autopsy was performed on his brain and showed significant CTE. Hernandez’s CTE was so severe it was comparable to that of players in their 60’s. In hindsight, concerns about the severe side effects of CTE remain. Hernandez had many issues off the field such as drug use and getting into fights. One could only wonder how much of his erratic behavior could have been directly related to his CTE.
“The findings in this study are the early steps toward identifying CTE during life,” Dr. Ann McKee, director of the CTE Center at Boston University, noted. “Once we can successfully diagnose CTE in living individuals, we will be much closer to discovering treatments for those who suffer from it.” The study looked at 23 former football players diagnosed with CTE, 50 non-athletes diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and 18 non-athletes used for a control group. Researchers discovered elevated levels of CCL11 protein in the group of ex-players, with those who played the longest containing the highest amounts. Further research on the CCL11 protein and related molecules has shown that they play a role in neuroinflammation as well as neurodegeneration.
The results from this study are preliminary. Researchers acknowledged that more studies on CCL11 and CTE must be conducted on a larger scale, partly to determine whether higher levels indicate advancement of the disease and if it correlates with symptom severity. When research is able to diagnose and differentiate between diseases then we are better able to treat and manage the disease.
Potential Impact of CTE Research
Vance McDonald, former tight end for the San Francisco 49ers states “I think honestly that the day that something is released that can connect football to [CTE], it’s going to change the game dramatically.” The NFL, a multi-billion dollar organization has a right to be concerned about the negative impact that further CTE research could have on its organization. It has already settled for one billion dollar payout to former NFL players affected by CTE. Many players that attract people to the game have quit or ended their careers early. Youth football programs have seen a steady decline in participation as well.
The NFL seems to have taken the majority of the burden from CTE but it is not only a football or NFL problem. Military individuals, boxers, and other contact sports athletes all could be at risk for CTE. Problem is that so little is known about CTE in football players and even less is known about the prevalence of CTE in other contact sports. Further research and funding will provide invaluable information about CTE, its diagnosis, and treatment. The CCL11 protein could be a progressive step in furthering what we know about CTE.