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Scientists Discover Possible Way to Detect Brain Disorder in the Living

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For the first time ever, researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, have identified the signs of the degenerative disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in the brains of five living retired National Football League players, according to a study published Jan. 22 in the online issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

One of the most vexing problems regarding the long-term effects of sports-related concussions has been the inability to diagnose CTE in the brains of the living. The late Junior Seau, pictured above, is one of many players who was found to have CTE after his death. (Seau committed suicide in May 2012 and brain specialists confirmed earlier this month that he suffered from CTE.)

If further research confirms the findings of this UCLA study, the implications cannot be understated for athletes of all ages, including youths. Being able to diagnose the effects of concussions on the brains of living athletes could give scientists a clearer picture of what causes long-term brain degeneration like CTE.

"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," said lead study author Dr. Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, in a statement.

The UCLA researchers injected the five retired NFL players (ages 45 to 73) with a harmless chemical marker they created called FDDNP, which binds to tau protein tangles (the telltale sign of CTE) and amyloid plaques (which are characteristically more abundant in people with Alzheimer's disease) in the brain. All five of the players had histories of "cognitive or mood symptoms" characteristic of CTE, according to the study.

The researchers then used position emission tomography, or PET, scans to detect whether the brains of the NFL retirees had a higher concentration of tau tangles or amyloid plaques compared with the brains of five healthy control subjects.

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The study authors discovered higher FDDNP signals in the amygdala and subcortical regions of the brains of the NFL retirees compared with the control group, as you'll see to the right. The red and yellow areas in each brain indicated high FDDNP binding signals, which aren't present in the scan of the control brain pictured here.

They also noticed an increase in FDDNP binding levels tied to the number of concussions each player had suffered. This "suggests a link between the players' history of head injury and FDDNP binding," according to the study.

The authors of the UCLA study were quick to call for further research, noting the limited sample size of their work. However, they concluded that if further research confirmed their findings, the FDDNP-PET scans could provide a way for doctors to identify brain degeneration in living athletes.

"It is the holy grail of CTE research to be able to identify those who are suffering from the syndrome early, while they're still alive," said study co-author Dr. Julian Bailes, director of the Brain Injury Research Institute, in a statement. "Discovering the effects of prior brain trauma opens up possibilities for symptom treatment and prevention."

Robert Stern, the co-founder of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston School of Medicine, told CNN.com that the study was "exciting but preliminary." He noted that because the FDDNP binds to both tau proteins and amyloid plaques, it's too early to conclude that this method of brain scanning can definitively detect CTE in the brains of the living.

"In CTE, only tau is found in abundance," said Stern. "What researchers saw was parts of the brain lighting up and showing abnormal findings. ... But we don't know if what is lighting up is tau alone, or beta amyloid, or both."

While the FDDNP-PET scan may not be a perfect method of identifying CTE, concussion experts appear to be in agreement that the study represents a step forward in concussion research.

Kevin Guskiewicz, the director of the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a 2011 MacArthur Foundation "Genius" grantee, told CNN.com, "I'm all for trying to build on studies like this."

With everyone from current football players to President Obama weighing in on the future of football, finding a definitive way to diagnose long-term neurodegeneration from sports-related concussions can't come soon enough.

Photos (from top): New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau warms up on the field before an NFL wild-card playoff football game in Foxborough, Mass., in January, 2010. (Charles Krupa/AP-File)

The left image shows a normal brain scan and middle and right images show scans of pro football players from the study. The green and red colors demonstrate the higher level of tau protein found in the brain. Note the higher levels (more red and green) in the players' scans. Scans of the players in the study reflect differing levels of tau protein and follow a pattern of progression similar to the tau deposits that have been observed at autopsy in CTE cases. (David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA)

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