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Chicago researchers confirm diagnosis of CTE in former NFL player before his death

This is important progress toward saving lives and preventing CTE.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy could only be diagnosed after death, until now. Chicago researchers have confirmed in a study published last week in the medical journal Neurosurgery that they have found a way to identify the disease in living patients, according to John Keilman of The Chicago Tribune.

Researchers from Evanston’s NorthShore University HealthSystem announced four years ago that a brain scan of a former NFL player had revealed a buildup of tau proteins around damaged areas in his brain. The scan was conducted by Dr. Bennet Omalu, who was portrayed in the movie Concussion by Will Smith. The probable diagnosis for McNeill was CTE. But the only way to get confirmation was after the former player’s death, through an autopsy.

That former player’s identity, confirmed by his family, is Fred McNeill. He played linebacker for the Vikings and retired in 1985. After he retired from the NFL, McNeill went to law school, passed the bar, and began practicing law. But the symptoms of CTE ended his career as an attorney. Later, he developed dementia and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. He passed away from complications related to ALS in 2015.

What is chronic traumatic encephalopathy? It’s more commonly known as CTE, and it’s a debilitating disease that develops as a result of repetitive brain trauma. It’s most commonly found in people who played contact sports or served in the military.

The link between football and CTE is too strong to deny. Researchers at Boston University’s CTE center found in a recent study of brains of deceased players who played football at the high school, college, or professional level that 99 percent of the NFL players studied had CTE.

The brain researchers examined for this study were donated by families of players who had experienced symptoms associated with CTE. But the connection between football and CTE is evident, as The New York Times pointed out in an overview of the study:

So even if every one of the other 1,200 players would have tested negative — which even the heartiest skeptics would agree could not possibly be the case — the minimum C.T.E. prevalence would be close to 9 percent, vastly higher than in the general population.

One challenge in diagnosing the disease in living patients is the wide array of symptoms, which can mimic other conditions. Patients experience headaches, depression, memory loss, anger and impulse control issues, anxiety, sleeplessness, suicidal tendencies, and more. Autopsy was necessary to confirm the presence of abnormal tau protein buildup. But if that can be identified on brain scans of living patients, it could change everything.

How will this progress help? For one thing, if CTE is identified in a living patient, doctors can recommend that they stop playing football. That wouldn’t change the diagnosis, but it might limit the severity of the disease as it develops.

Boston University researchers have also found a specific biomarker in the brain, which can be found in living patients, that indicates a CTE diagnosis. A biomarker is a measurable substance that highlights an abnormality. In this case, it’s a protein the body creates to help regulate inflammation and the immune system.

Although more research is needed, these two discoveries could not only help doctors diagnose CTE before a patient’s death, but could also aid in developing therapies and treatments for the disease. And that’s important and necessary progress.