We’ve all seen the headlines. Football players skidding off the rails after too many hits to the head, wracked by depression, drug abuse, violence, dementia, even suicide. But, cruelly, the cause of these life-shattering disruptions can only be uncovered on the autopsy table.
All that may change if BU scientists realize an ambitious vision: a diagnostic test to detect the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in former contact sport athletes while they’re still alive.
CTE is linked with repetitive brain trauma and marked by changes in behavior, mood, and cognition. Today it can only be diagnosed in a postmortem brain, leaving its victims and loved ones to suffer through erratic symptoms and providing only a moving target when it comes to treatment. The disease has not only been found in professional football players, boxers, and hockey players, but in college and high school athletes. Parents now think twice about letting their kids suit up for youth football.
Last spring, some 50 scientists—from BU’s School of Medicine and School of Public Health, the Cleveland Clinic, the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, the Mayo Clinic, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and other major institutions around the country—gathered on campus to launch a landmark, seven-year, $16 million National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke–funded study. The BU-led effort will examine 120 former NFL players, 60 former college football players, and 60 control subjects. Data will be shared with researchers worldwide.
The research, headed up by Robert Stern, the clinical core director of BU’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center and clinical research director of the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, builds on the groundbreaking work of School of Medicine Professor of Neurology and Pathology Ann McKee, director of the CTE Center and associate director of BU’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center. McKee first identified the telltale mark of CTE—tiny tangles of a protein called tau, clustered around blood vessels—in the dissected brain of a boxer who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The die-hard Green Bay Packers fan has since studied the brains of more than 200 deceased individuals.
“Our research on CTE is about people,” she says. “We do this because we are speaking for those people who can’t speak for themselves any longer. We tell their stories because people need to know.”