Researchers at Boston University announced Tuesday that they have made a promising early breakthrough in the quest to diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the living.
The BU team said it had discovered a new biomarker for the neurodegenerative disease, which is associated with repetitive head impacts in sports and military action, that moves researchers closer to developing ways to prevent and treat CTE. It currently can be diagnosed only through a post-mortem examination of the brain. The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.
“The findings of this study are the early steps toward identifying CTE during life,’’ said Dr. Ann McKee, the paper’s senior author, who is a director of BU’s CTE Center and chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System. “Once we can successfully diagnose CTE in living individuals, we will be much closer to discovering treatments for those who suffer from it.”
The BU authors said the discovery might also help medical specialists distinguish between CTE and Alzheimer’s disease, whose symptoms often are similar to CTE’s.
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Researchers from the BU School of Medicine and the VA Boston Healthcare System examined the brains of 23 deceased college and professional football players and compared them with the brains of 50 nonathletes with Alzheimer’s disease and a control group of 18 nonathletes.
The study found that levels of the biomarker, known as CCL11, were normal in the brains of the nonathlete control group and nonathletes with Alzheimer’s disease. But the levels were significantly higher in the brains of individuals with CTE.
Researchers also compared the degree that CCL11 was elevated with the number of years the individuals played football and found a positive correlation between the CCL11 levels and the number of years the individuals played.
“Not only did this research show the potential for CTE diagnosis during life, but it also offers a possible mechanism for distinguishing between CTE and other diseases,’’ said Jonathan Cherry, a lead author and postdoctoral fellow in neurology at the BU medical school. “By making it possible to distinguish between normal individuals, individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, and CTE, therapies can become more targeted and hopefully more effective.’’
The findings are preliminary and based on a small sample. The authors said additional studies will be necessary to gauge whether increased CCL11 levels might help predict the severity of an individual’s disease.
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.