Imaging technique holds potential for early diagnosis of athlete brain disorders

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Researchers have used brain imaging to identify abnormal brain proteins associated with traumatic brain injury in five retired professional football players who are still living.

Confirmation of the presence of these abnormal tau proteins--also associated with Alzheimer's disease--previously had only been established through autopsies. The preliminary findings of the study are published in the February issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

Long-term health issues resulting from sports-related concussions and brain trauma have been hot topics in the news recently, as evidence grows that athletes exposed to these injuries may develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative condition caused by a build up of tau protein. CTE has been associated with memory loss, confusion, progressive dementia, depression, suicidal behavior, personality changes, abnormal gait and tremors.

This month, for example, the National Institute of Health reported that tissue samples from the brain of Junior Seau--a 20-year veteran of the NFL who committed suicide last year--showed that he had CTE, according to the Associated Press.

"Early detection of tau proteins may help us to understand what is happening sooner in the brains of these injured athletes," lead study author Gary Small, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California Los Angeles, said in an announcement. "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."

For the study, the researchers recruited five retired players who had a history of concussions and mood or cognitive changes. They injected a chemical marker called FDDNP (which binds to amyloid beta plaques and neurofibrillary tau "tangles") into the brains of each subject and imaged them with positron emission tomography (PET).

The scientists then compared those scans with the scans of healthy men of the same age, body mass index, education and family history of dementia. The researchers found the ex-football players had elevated levels of FDDNP in the amygdala and subcortical regions of the brain--the part of the brain associated with learning, memory, behavior and emotions.

This imaging technique has the potential to help physicians in future early diagnoses of brain disorders in athletes.

"It is the holy grail of CTE research to be able to identify those who are suffering from the syndrome early, while they're still alive," said study author Julian Bailes, director of the Brain Injury Research Institute and the Bennett Tarkington Chairman of the department of neurosurgery at Evanston, Ill.-based NorthShore University HealthSystem. "Discovering the effects of prior brain trauma earlier opens up possibilities for symptom treatment and prevention."

To learn more:
- read the study
- here's the AP article
- see the announcement

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