Researchers may be closing in on a way to check athletes while they’re alive for signs of a degenerative brain disease that’s been linked to frequent head blows, as published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Experimental scans found higher levels of an abnormal protein tied to the disease in a study of former NFL players who were having mood and thinking problems. They were given positron emission tomography, or PET scans, in which a radioactive tracer is injected that binds to various substances and makes them visible on the scans. Several of these tracers are used now to look for a protein called beta amyloid in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. An experimental tracer that doctors are testing binds to another protein, tau, which is the key one that’s been implicated in CTE.
Men in the study had both types of tracers. Tau levels were higher in the players compared to the others, but their amyloid levels were similar, confirming that CTE is a different disease than Alzheimer’s. However, there was no relationship between tau levels and the severity of mood and thinking symptoms. Researchers think the study may have been too small to detect a difference or that tau may not be the only factor involved.