We diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the neurological disease thought to be ravaging former NFL players, at autopsy. But now, for the first time, we're beginning to find ways to discover it in players before they're dead. Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett is one of the first to be tested and found to have the buildup of tau protein that marks CTE.
The testing is done through a series of brain scans at UCLA, under the guidance of Dr. Gary Small. We covered Small's initiative last year (you can read the full story below), and it is starting a further pilot study this year in Chicago. It's an important step, not just for our ability to observe how the disease progresses in patients we believe have CTE, but for what it means for the next step in studying the disease: finding a cure—or at least something to slow it.
Simply put, the test used by Small at UCLA uses a PET scan and a biological marker, [18F]FDDNP, that attaches itself to both mutated tau protein and amyloid plaques—the two markers required for a definitive Alzheimer's Disease diagnosis. Theoretically, this could lead to muddied diagnoses with regard to AD and CTE, but the areas of the brain CTE affects are (generally) concentrated to specific areas of the brain.
Dr. Julian Bailes and Dr. Robert Cantu are both on record as calling this the "Holy Grail" of CTE research if it works. It would not only allow players to get baseline tests to show their (hopefully) healthy brains before they begin their careers, but it would allow researchers to track the advancement of tau as they play with regular checkups.