Researchers in Boston discovered a new method to detect a degenerative brain disease in people who have suffered from repeated head trauma, such as soldiers and athletes.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, “is a progressive neurologic disease that is associated with repetitive head impacts, and those can be either concussions or sub-concussions,” said the study’s senior author Dr. Ann McKee. The disease is also found in people with blast injuries.
Research has also shown that a number of repetitive head injuries over a certain amount of time can lead to more severe CTE.
“More exposure, more risk,” notes Mckee, who is also the chief of neuropathology at VA Boston and director of Boston University’s CTE Center.
“We’re finding that the brain recovers from the injury, but if you have a repeated injury within that window of vulnerability before the brain has had a chance to recover, there is even worse outcomes.”
CTE is a buildup of Tau proteins over time that “gradually causes interference with a person’s mental functioning, behavioral changes. It can cause mood changes like depression and cognitive decline and memory loss,” McKee said.
Since 2000, there have been 370,688 cases of traumatic brain injuries in the Department of Defense. Those who have repeated concussions have been found to have an increased risk “for prolonged or permanent neurologic damage, including early onset dementia,” according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center.
Up until now, the only way to determine CTE in someone with a history of head trauma was to exam their brain tissue after death. McKee’s study looked at CCL11, a protein that was shown to be elevated in people diagnosed with CTE, but not in those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, another degenerative brain disease.
“This is an early study, a preliminary study and we have to validate it,” McKee said, “but what we’re hoping is this eventually may lead to a way to be able to diagnose CTE during life in living people.”
“Just finding a difference, and such a severe difference between CTE and Alzheimer’s disease, gives us a lot of hope in terms of diagnosis but also for treatment,” she added.
Brain banks, where people have donated their brains for study, have allowed researchers like McKee to “understand what happens after a head injury at the molecular level so that we can figure out ways to diagnose it and figure out treatment.”
“We are absolutely committed to the future for veterans and contact sport athletes and anyone who experiences repetitive head trauma,” she said of the research being done in this field of study. “We’ve learned a lot over the last nine years by really focusing on traumatic brain injury and running a brain bank.”