Dr. Ann McKee, the neuropathologist credited with some of the most high-profile CTE diagnoses, said she was buoyed by the recent discovery, calling it “the first ray of hope” in a years-long effort to understand the disease.
“To me, it feels like maybe now we can start going in the other direction,” she said. “We’ve been going down, and everything has just gotten more and more depressing. And now it’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to actually find some answers here.’”
In a new study published Tuesday in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers from BU and the VA Boston Healthcare System studied the brains of 23 former football players who were diagnosed with CTE, in addition to those of 50 non-athletes who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and 18 non-athlete controls. They found significantly elevated levels of a protein related to inflammation called CCL11 in the group of ex-players compared with the non-athletes. The levels were even higher in those who played the game longer.
She cautioned that a lot more research is needed. The BU findings are preliminary and have to be validated. But researchers are hopeful that if an elevated biomarker in a living person might indicate the presence of CTE, research into prevention and treatment of the disease can begin to move forward.
“It’s a unique disease, and it’s going to have unique proteins that are modified in this disease, and this is the first indication that we’ve found one of the unique proteins,” said McKee, the director of BU’s CTE Center and senior author of the new study.
Researchers have been studying the disease in earnest since Dr. Bennet Omalu first published a paper in the journal Neurosurgery 12 years ago called “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player.” While leading experts agree the disease is linked to the repetitive hits suffered on the football field, it can be diagnosed only after a player has died. That has meant that many former players who suffered late in their lives from the effects of CTE never knew for certain they had the disease.