New Research Sheds Light on Brain Disease Related to Concussions

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Many kids out there play contact sports like football, and while it’s fun to play, there could be a steep price to pay. 

Researchers are learning more about how concussions lead to brain disease. Until now, researchers could only diagnose it after death, through an autopsy of the brain. But new research shows they might soon be able to diagnose it while people are still alive.

The suicide of former NFL player Junior Seau, along with other NFL players, is sparking this research into chromic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

When an athlete gets a concussion, no matter what their age, researchers say a protein called “tau protein” builds up in the brain. They believe the buildup of that particular protein causes brain disease — and might be to blame for the depression that plagues so many former NFL players suffer from.

The challenge has been diagnosing it while athletes are still alive. Researchers at UCLA believe they are close to a breakthrough.

They took five former NFL players, including former Chiefs quarterback Wayne Clark, who all had a concussion at least once in their career. They then injected a compound into their brain that sticks to the tau protein. Using a PET scan, they were able to see the buildup. Every one of them had signs of CTE.

The researchers say it’s too early to say this test to find CTE in living people will always be successful, but they are encouraged by the results.

With many researchers believing that tau protein builds up in young athletes whenever they get a concussion, this test could help identify young athletes at risk for brain disease, so they can decide whether they should keep playing contact sports.

Researchers at other universities are also trying to find new ways to identify and treat concussions. At Stanford, they’re using special mouth guards connected to brain sensors to determine how different types of hits affect the head. And that research will be used to make better helmets, to better protect the head from future concussions.

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