In what could be a breakthrough development in the detection and treatment of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, researchers have announced that they have confirmed the existence of the neurodegenerative disease in a patient whose brain they had scanned four years previously. If further testing bolsters that confirmation, reliable tests for CTE might be performed on people while they are still alive, as opposed to posthumously.

A team from NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston, Ill., still had to wait until the patient died to autopsy his brain and note that what had shown up on his scan conformed to what they saw. The unidentified subject was described as a 12-year veteran of the NFL, who became just the latest former football player to have been diagnosed after his death with CTE.

CTE is diagnosed when scientists see distinctive deposits of a protein called tau, which eats away at brain cells and causes symptoms such as speech and motor impairment, memory loss, erratic behavior and personality changes. The disease was first linked to football in 2002 by neuropathologist Bennet Omalu, and it is thought to result from repeated concussive and sub-concussive impacts.

The NorthShore team has been working with UCLA researchers to use positron emission tomography (PET) on former football players and military members. NorthShore co-director Julian Bailes told USA Today on Wednesday that CTE forms “a very unique pattern” in the scans, and the recent autopsy revealed the “first to have that brain specimen correlation.”

“It was very nice to get that scientific confirmation of that scientific truth,” Bailes added. The results were first published last week in the journal Neurosurgery.

The patient was said to have been an NFL linebacker who played defensive end in college and who began law school in his final professional season. He eventually began to show signs of concerning behavior, including depression and a lack of impulse control, and had his brain scanned at age 59. Within two years, he developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and he died at age 63.

Having gotten confirmation of what they saw in a scan from one patient, researchers will need to replicate that result in more patients before confidently moving ahead with CTE tests in living people. However, Bailes is very encouraged by what he saw, and by what could be on the horizon for those suffering from a disease they don’t know for sure they have.

“If there’s ever a treatment developed, you can test the response to it,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “If you can trust the scans, you can tell a football player he shouldn’t keep playing, or tell someone in the military he can’t [be exposed to] explosions.”

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