Anybody who has followed my writing here over the course of the past four seasons knows that one topic in which I take an especial interest is the matter of cognitive health, and especially chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. After all, the Pittsburgh Steelers have played an important part in its legacy within the sport.
The organization’s history with the subject matter is pretty well-documented, and doesn’t need to be rehashed in full here, but the original connection between football and CTE was drawn from a postmortem observation of the brain of Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster.
Since then, hundreds of deceased NFL players who have chosen to have their brains donated to science after their passes have been discovered to have suffered advanced stages of CTE that were not consistent with predictable aging patterns of deterioration.
But the biggest hurdle in the advancement of CTE research has been the very basic fact that you cannot identify it in a living brain because you have to actually go inside the brain to find it. Generally cutting up the brain of a living person does not end too well.
That is why a headline caught my attention yesterday courtesy of a public release from the Boston University School of Medicine, one of the primary institutions in the United States who are doing research on cognitive health related to CTE.
“A new biomarker (CCL11) for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has been discovered that may allow the disease to be diagnosed during life for the first time”, it reads in the introductory paragraph. It is a simple enough statement, but can have profound effects for the future.
“The ability to diagnose CTE in living individuals will allow for research into prevention and treatment of the disease”, it goes on to say. Unsurprisingly, their findings came from the results of a study in which they compared the brains of deceased football player—including college players—to the brains of non-athletes.
The study included the brains of non-athletes that are healthy as well as the brains of those who have Alzheimer’s disease, which leads the researchers to believe that this will also help to differentiate CTE from Alzheimer’s as well.
According to the results of the study, the CCL11 biomarker reflected normal levels in brains of both groups of non-athletes, “but were significantly elevated in the brains of individuals with CTE”. They also found a positive correlation between the level of the biomarker and the extent of the individual’s playing history.
Most significantly, they found the same results in the cerebrospinal fluid of each control group, which is something that can be studied in a living patient. “The findings of this study are the early steps toward identifying CTE during life.”, an author of the paper stated. “Once we can successfully diagnose CTE in living individuals, we will be much closer to discovering treatments for those who suffer from it”.
Naturally, this is just the first step in a long line of research to follow, but we may look back on this in time as a watershed moment in the field.