Researchers Report Evidence of CTE in a Living Patient for the First Time

Researchers in Chicago report they have detected evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in a living patient for the first time by detecting deposits of tau proteins. The degenerative brain disease currently can only be formally diagnosed after an autopsy. The study also confirmed that a “fingerprint” signature of CTE exists. More research is needed to verify the correlation, but it is a groundbreaking first step toward understanding CTE and developing a cure. The case study was published in the journal Neurosurgery this week.

Dr. Julian Bailes, director of neurosurgery and co-director of NorthShore University HealthSystem Neurological Institute is very pleased with the study, saying “this is the first time to have a scan which shows brain degeneration of CTE in a living person and then to have that person die and it correlates with the autopsy.”

The lead author of the study, Dr. Bennet Omalu, confirmed that the unnamed player in the study was Minnesota Vikings’ Fred McNeill. Dr. Omalu is credited with first discovering CTE in professional football players. The experimental technology was used on at least a dozen other former NFL players, but McNeill is the first case to have those test results confirmed with an autopsy. McNeill was 59 when his brain was scanned in 2012. The scan indicated the presence of tau proteins, which clump around damaged neural cells and slowly spread, killing brain cells. Dr. Omalu noted that in CTE, tau makes distinctive patterns in the brain and has a “specific topographic signature.”

McNeill began experiencing progressive motor deficits at 61, and he was eventually unable to feed himself. He began playing football at age 11 and retired from the NFL at 33. He died in 2015, after which doctors made an official CTE diagnosis. CTE is often found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a “history of repetitive brain trauma.”

Omalu and his team are currently raising money to start a phase 3 clinical trial to further test the technology and replicate what they have seen in McNeill. He anticipates that once funds are raised, it will take another two to three years for the trial and then another year, at least, for approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. A commercial test could be available in less than five years.

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