Could CTE Brain Disorder Be Diagnosed While Football Players Are Alive?

Mid aged doctor checking football player's eyes with flashlight.
(Image credit: Rocketclips, Inc./Shutterstock)

Scientists have found a new marker for a brain disorder called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that could help doctors diagnose the condition while a person is still alive, rather than after the person's death, as was the case for NFL player Aaron Hernandez.

CTE is a degenerative brain disease found in people with a history of repeated blows to the head, including pro-football players and boxers, according to the researchers, from the Boston University School of Medicine and the VA Boston Healthcare System. A previous study from the same group of researchers found CTE in 110 out of 111 former NFL players. However, currently, the condition can be diagnosed only by examining a person's brain tissue after their death, so there is an "urgent need for a method to detect CTE during life," the researchers said.

In the new study, the researchers performed a postmortem analysis of the brains of 23 former college and professional football players, 50 non-athletes with Alzheimer's disease (a brain disease with similar symptoms to CTE) and 18 non-athletes without Alzheimer's disease.

They found that the athletes with CTE had elevated levels of a protein called CCL11 in their brains, compared with the brains of the non-athletes with and without Alzheimer's disease.

In addition, the researchers found that the more years an athlete had played football, the greater the levels of CCL11 were in their brains. [10 Things You Didn't Know About the Brain]

The researchers also wanted to see if that so-called biomarker for CTE would show up in a person's cerebrospinal fluid — something that can be sampled when a person is alive. They took postmortem samples of the cerebrospinal fluid from eight of the non-athletes without CTE or Alzheimer's and seven of the athletes with CTE. Again, they found that levels of CCL11 were elevated in the samples from players with CTE, compared with the non-athletes without CTE.

These findings suggest that levels of CCL11 in the cerebrospinal fluid might be able to help diagnose CTE during a person's life.

"The findings of this study are the early steps toward identifying CTE during life," Dr. Ann McKee, director of Boston University's CTE Center and senior author of the study, said in a statement. "Once we can successfully diagnose CTE in living individuals, we will be much closer to discovering treatments for those who suffer from it."

However, more research is needed to confirm the results using samples of cerebrospinal fluid from living people, and to determine whether increased levels of CCL11 are an early or late occurrence in people with CTE.

In addition, it's likely that multiple biomarkers, rather than just one, will be needed to definitively diagnose CTE in living people, the researchers said.

The study is published today (Sept. 26) in the journal PLOS ONE.

Original article on Live Science

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.