Researchers Identify Biomarker That Could Help Detect CTE In Living Patients

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.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • srdan

    If this materializes it will be the demise of the NFL.

  • Black Gold

    That is a significant development, as now CTE can potentially be identified at early stages, while players are still active in the game. Maybe players can be tested once a year, and a medical standard instituted (with the blessing of the NFL and the teams), such that players who express CCL11 above a certain threshold will be advised or mandated to stop playing. That might save many players in the future from having the tragic outcomes we’ve seen in the past.

  • falconsaftey43

    Admittedly, I didn’t read the study, but from what is said here, a key control group is missing. That being a group of athletes in non-contact sports (runners or something like that) to ensure the marker is not just correlated with athletic exercise. Very well may have been covered, but just pointing out how extremely complex medical science can be when trying to connect A to B.

  • nutty32

    Not necessarily. There’s many ways to get head trauma. The study might find that all kinds of people have CTE to some degree and/or many footballers don’t have the marker. Can’t really ban life.

  • Black Gold

    That’s a great point, and they need to incorporate a non-contact athlete control group to future studies. It is interesting to note however, that the CCL11 biomarker is also associated with Alzheimer disease progression, and it correlates with impaired cognition and memory, which are not traits that healthy athletes normally exhibit.

  • srdan

    Perhaps, but that would be comletely contrary to what has been documented so far.

  • nutty32

    That’s true. But as MM points out in the article, so far, only the brains of players with known issues have been studied because dissection was necessary. It will be interesting to give the bio marker to ALL football players as well as non-football players.

  • Jeff Papiernik

    The better control group would be former NFL players with no complaints of CTE. See if the marker is just correlated to playing football for a career and not necessarily brain damage.

  • Black Gold

    Another reason why it might not necessarily be NFL’s demise is that like all progressive diseases, if it is caught early, it can usually be treated successfully, perhaps even cured. If a biomarker with sufficient resolution can be developed, and a baseline, data-informed clinical threshold established, players may feel relieved if they know they can still recover from this if they know they can be diagnosed early. There seems to be significant expression variability of CTE and other cognitive disorders to begin with (perhaps due to genetic predispositions, etc.), so some players might never get it, and others could see symptoms early on in their careers. Players might be comforted in committing to the NFL career path if they know that CTE can be identified early.

  • Jeff Papiernik

    Yeah you can’t hardly conclude anything right now due to the amount of selection bias in the individuals studied. Until a solid control group is studied and correlated with the experimental group, we can’t really say anything for certain.

  • Phil Brenneman II

    Interesting news and any step in the right direction is fine by me. Truth be told though, I am more concerned and hopeful that they can develop equipment that gets closer and closer to fool proof for preventing the start of CTE to begin with. Not sure how possible it is but we can all hope.

  • walter

    Since it appears that every player or 99 percent have some form of cte, i think you are correct

  • pittsburghjoe

    I cant wait… start testing the testing in junior high. The pipeline will be dry before college.

  • pittsburghjoe

    Yep, Good luck surviving one let alone two black swan events.

  • pittsburghjoe

    I would love to see an organization like Mayo Clinic conduct this research study. They are a trusted name that excels at brain related research.

  • Hard Row

    Why would they study non-football players? The media seems to tell us that only football players have brain ailments later in life.

    They focus on the NFL because they have deep pockets to fund research.

    If the NFL had a competent commissioner, they would not have allowed to narrative to take hold that getting a handful of concussions guarantees you will die young or be senile.

    Meanwhile parents pull their kid from football and sign him up for soccer which actually has a higher chance of concussion than football. But the media doesn’t acknowledge that so it’s kind of that that tree falling in the forest deal.

  • Lil Smitty

    When I read that this biomarker was highest in players with CTE, I was wondering if this marker could be an indication of people with the highest risk of getting CTE. It would be interesting to see if a random control group would produce people with elevated levels of CCL11, who don’t show signs of CTE. As with many medical maladies CTE doesn’t always affect everyone the same way. Not every person who has played football ended up with CTE.

  • pittsburghjoe

    If I was an owner, I would look at an exit strategy. Sell high while you can.