It’s superbowl time again, and time to talk about football head injuries. At least there’s now a new technique that may lead to earlier diagnosis of brain disorders in athletes The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that millions of these injuries occur each year.
Now researchers have used a brain-imaging tool to identify the abnormal tau proteins associated with this type of repetitive injury in five retired National Football League players who are still living. Previously, confirmation of the presence of this protein, which is also associated with Alzheimer’s disease, could only be established by an autopsy (when it’s obviously too late for intervention).
Previous reports and studies have shown that professional athletes in contact sports who are exposed to repetitive mild traumatic brain injuries may develop ongoing impairment such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative condition caused by a build up of tau protein. CTE has been associated with memory loss, confusion, progressive dementia, depression, suicidal behavior, personality changes, abnormal gait and tremors.
Psychiatrist Gary Small says, "Early detection of tau proteins may help us to understand what is happening sooner in the brains of these injured athletes. Our findings may also guide us in developing strategies and interventions to protect those with early symptoms, rather than try to repair damage once it becomes extensive." According to Small, a recent study of more than 3,400 retired professional football players showed that they had a higher-than-average risk of dying from Alzheimer’s disease.
Larger follow-up studies are needed to determine the impact and usefulness of detecting these tau proteins early, but given the large number of people at risk for mild traumatic brain injury–not only athletes but military personnel, auto accident victims and others–a means of testing what is happening in the brain during the early stages could potentially have a considerable impact on public health.