Researchers studying brain trauma are calling it a breakthrough. And the breakthrough they're reporting is the ability to diagnose CTE, a severe degenerative brain disease, in those who are still alive.
Prior to this announcement, the only way to determine whether someone had CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy – which is brought on by repeated blows to the head – was after death by autopsy. With this news, however, hope has risen significantly that it's a big first step for doctors to be able to identify this debilitating disease early, long before it plunges its sufferers into the throes of depression, rage, memory loss, and in some cases, suicide.
At the heart of the breakthrough is a unique test administered to a suspected CTE victim, former NFL linebacker Fred McNeill, four years before his death in November 2015 at the age of 63.
The diagnostic exam uses what is described as "radioactive tracers" called FDDNP that attach themselves to brain proteins specific to CTE. These, known as tau proteins, are then picked up by positron emission tomography, or PET scan. And when McNeill underwent an autopsy years later his brain showed damage precisely in locations where the earlier diagnostic exam showed they were.
“This is the first to have that brain specimen correlation," stated Julian Bailes, co-director of NorthShore University HealthSystem in Illinois, speaking to USA Today. "It was very nice to get that scientific confirmation of that scientific truth.”
The diagnostic exam, called TauMark, was developed in part by Dr. Bennet Omalu, who was the first to identify the presence of CTE among NFL players, back in 2002. The exam has been used on more than a dozen ex-players before McNeill's results were confirmed.
The results of the study, titled "Postmortem Autopsy-Confirmation of Antemortem [F-18]FDDNP-PET Scans in a Football Player With Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy," were recently published in the journal Neurosurgery.
Contributing to the decision to take part in this experimental testing were the stark behavioral changes McNeill experienced, and his alarmed family witnessed.
As a practicing attorney and law firm partner, he was considered a lighthearted, easy-going family man, with a wife and two young sons, Fred Jr. and Gavin (from left, in the adjacent photo, via Google Images). But before he even turned 50, McNeill found himself more frequently enraged, and bouts of memory loss were becoming more common. And after his wife, Tia, made contact with Dr. Omalu after doing research on her own, Fred McNeill agreed to take part in TauMark.
McNeill was not named in the study, but descriptions of him and news reports combined to make his identity known.
“It’s only one case report, but that’s the way science begins,” added Bailes, telling USA Today. “There’s more to understanding, but this is a nice demonstration of the correlation of a living scan and an autopsy of the brain.”