Abnormal tau protein detected by experimental PET scan in brains of former NFL players

Written by Ebony Torrington (Future Science Group)

Researchers have detected elevated levels of abnormal tau protein in the regions of the brain affected by chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) by using an experimental PET scan in a group of NFL players.
The multidisciplinary team from Boston (MA, USA) and Arizona (AZ, USA) detected these elevated levels of abnormal tau protein in the region of the brain affected by CTE in a small group of living formal National Football League (NFL) players displaying cognitive, mood and behavior symptoms.

The results of the study have been published online in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The research team also discovered that people who had played tackle football for a greater number of years had a higher the level of tau protein detected by the PET scan. Nevertheless, no relationship was found connecting the tau PET levels and cognitive test performance, or the severity of mood and behavior symptoms.

“The results of this study provide initial support for the flortaucipir PET scan to detect abnormal tau from CTE during life. However, we’re not there yet,” explained Robert Stern (Boston University School of Medicine, MA, USA). “These results do not mean that we can now diagnose CTE during life or that this experimental test is ready for use in the clinic.”

You might also like:

The brains of 26 living former NFL players with cognitive, mood, and behavior symptoms (aged between 40–69) and a control group (31 same-aged men) displaying no symptoms of history of traumatic brain injury were scanned using US FDA-approved florbetapir PET scans and experimental flortaucipir PET scans to evaluate amyloid plaque deposition and tau deposition.

The results showed that tau PET levels were considerably higher in the NFL group compared with the controls. Tau was also found in areas of the areas of the brain that have been shown to be affected by neuropathologically diagnosed CTE in post-mortem examinations.

“Our findings suggest that mild cognitive, emotional, and behavioral symptoms observed in athletes with a history of repetitive impacts are not attributable to Alzheimer’s disease, and they provide a foundation for additional research studies to advance the scientific understanding, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of CTE in living persons,” explained Eric Reiman (Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, AZ, USA).

“More research is needed to draw firm conclusions, and contact sports athletes, their families, and other stakeholders are waiting,” he concluded.

Currently the authors are carrying out a longitudinal study called the DIAGNOSE CTE Research Project, supported by the NIH. The study will be on former college football players, former NFL players and people without a history of contact sports to try and address other unanswered and important questions related to CTE. They hope to publish these results early in 2020.

Sources: Stern RA, Adler CH, Chen K et al. Tau positron-emission tomography in former National Football League players. N. Engl. J. Med. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1900757 (2019); www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190410171658.htm