Researchers Are Developing a Method to Identify CTE in Living Athletes

Until now, brain autopsies have been the only method for detection

Junior Seau, a CTE sufferer, in 2002. (Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images)
Junior Seau, a CTE sufferer, in 2002. (Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images)
Getty Images

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Published Wednesday by the New England Journal of Medicine, a new study reveals researchers are close to being able to diagnose athletes with CTE — the degenerative brain disease that’s been linked to frequent blows to the head — while they are still alive.

By comparing the brains of 26 former NFL players experiencing thinking problems to the brains of 31 similarly aged men without symptoms or a history of head injuries, researchers found the football players’ brains had higher levels of an abnormal protein tied to CTE.

The research represents a serious breakthrough in the sports medicine community, as CTE-related signs have previously only been identifiable via brain autopsy. While researchers aren’t sure if the presence of the protein will be enough to 100% determine if a particular player does or does not have CTE, they are hopeful that such a development is on the horizon.

“It’s an encouraging advance. It looks like they have detected CTE in living players,” said University of California neurologist and imaging expert Dr. Gil Rabinovici. “It’s hugely important to be able to detect the disease in living people.”

The levels of the protein in the players’ brains also helped the researchers determine that CTE is a different disease than Alzheimer’s.

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