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Researchers Explore Way to Diagnose Brain Damage in Living Football Players

By: Joseph Cammarata

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a neurodegenerative brain condition linked to repetitive head trauma. As numerous studies and even the National Football League have indicated, CTE is linked to a number of serious disorders, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS, among others. It has also been associated with behavioral changes, gradual onset of dementia, and suicidal behavior in many former athletes.

Washington, DC Brain Injury AttorneyIn July, we discussed a recent study in which researchers found CTE in the brains of 99% of athletes studied (110 of 111 former NFL players). While shocking, these findings were largely expected due to the serious long-term consequences many former athletes and their families have struggled with. Unfortunately, determining whether a player suffers from CTE can only currently be done through an autopsy, after an athlete has died and has already struggled with the condition for years. Now, researchers believe they may have found a test to identify the disorder in players who are still alive.

According to a research team from Boston University, CTE may be diagnosable during a person’s life through testing of their spinal fluid. As noted by researchers, a specific compound known as cytokine is found in elevated levels of people who died with CTE, but not in people without the condition or those who have a degenerative brain disease such as Alzheimer’s.

The cytokine found by researchers, CCL11, like other cytokines, is an inflammatory compound released as a response to damage or infections. While it can be good in fighting off injuries, excess levels can cause further damage. Damage can also progressively worsen even when an athlete retires and is no longer exposed to head trauma. By interrupting the cytokine and its development, researchers believe, there is the possibility that the condition can be slowed down or even stopped.

The finding presents a striking abnormality unique to CTE victims, according to the University’s CTE Center, and one that can provide clues as to how CTE develops and what can be done to treat it during an individual’s life. However, more research is still required before the connections and possible treatment approaches become clear.

As scientists continue to explore the many mysteries of the brain and its response to trauma, they remain steadfast on supporting methods that are known to reduce the likelihood of athletes suffering long-term repercussions as a result of their careers. This includes reducing risks of concussions and brain injuries through rule changes and better protocol. These are the same types of rule changes enacted by the DC Athletic Concussion Protection Act which I helped draft. Now law in the District of Columbia, the Act establishes clear guidelines for responding to youth athletes who suffer concussions, including their immediate removal from play and the need for medical monitoring and clearance in order to return to the field.

Research and scientific progress are vital to putting an end to a condition that has devastated the lives of so many athletes, but they do not replace the obligations of leagues and sports associations to enact important changes now to deal with known problems – changes that can protect athletes moving forward. As Preferred Attorneys for the DC Metro area by the Brain Injury Association of America, we continue to advocate for these important changes, and to supporting the many brain injury victims and families who come to us during their times of need. Learn more about brain injuries on our website, or by contacting our firm to speak with an attorney.