An autopsy confirmed a 12-year NFL veteran had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, just as a brain scan four years before his death had indicated, a breakthrough researchers hope will help in their quest to diagnose the disease in the living.
“Our impression has been [CTE] is a very unique pattern” in the scans, said Julian Bailes, co-director of NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston, who has been working with scientists at UCLA to do PET scans of the brains of hundreds of former football players and military members. “This is the first to have that brain specimen correlation.
“It was very nice to get that scientific confirmation of that scientific truth,” Bailes said Wednesday.
The development was published online this week in Neurosurgery.
Scientists know there is a link between repetitive head trauma and CTE, a neurodegenerative brain disease. But they don’t know why it occurs in some people and not others, how many hits to the head are too many, or what factor genetics and environment might play.
Part of the key to finding those answers is being able to diagnose CTE while someone is still alive. Right now, it can only be confirmed through an autopsy.
But Bailes, Bennet Omalu, who coined the term CTE after discovering it in Steelers center Mike Webster in 2002, and the other researchers were convinced they were seeing the telltale signs of the disease in scans of former players and servicemen and women.
In the case detailed in Neurology, there were spots throughout the former linebacker’s brain that appeared damaged. When his brain was autopsied, tau — the destructive protein associated with CTE — was found in the exact spots the scan had indicated.
“They believe this scan is unique,” said Bailes, who chairs the department of neurosurgery at NorthShore. “[The damage] is not seen in other degenerative brain diseases.”
The player was not named, but the article included details of his life and his deterioration. He was a defensive end in college and a linebacker in the NFL, and began law school in his last year in the league. He showed signs of behavioral and mood changes, and had his brain scanned when he was 59.
He developed ALS about two years later and died when he was 63.
The discovery doesn’t mean researchers will be able to look at another person’s scan and say definitively that he or she has CTE. But they can look for similarities, Bailes said.
And that can lead to other clues that might one day produce a living diagnosis.
“It’s only one case report, but that’s the way science begins,” Bailes said. “There’s more to understanding, but this is a nice demonstration of the correlation of a living scan and an autopsy of the brain.”