Concussions and Clues in Athletes’ Brains

On February 3, when you’re watching football players pound each other in the Super Bowl, spare a care for the big guys’ brains, which take a beating during play. Concussions are very common among football players, what with all the crashing into each other headfirst. Those concussions can have dire results. In fact, more than 2,000 former professional football players have sued the National Football League on the grounds that the NFL downplayed the dangers of repeated concussions.

Repeated concussions appear to be related to neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease. Also indicated is a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The symptoms for CTE include depression, memory loss, aggression, and mood swings. Patients can exhibit full-blown dementia in the condition’s late stages. Several suicides of NFL players have been blamed on CTE.

Neuroscientists are studying CTE in efforts to limit its devastation. The disease begins when the brain is not allowed time to heal after repeated jolts. The brain loses mass, and parts of the brain begin to atrophy. Eventually, a dense, abnormal protein called tau accumulates in brain tissue. Until recently, tau could be detected in the brain of a CTE victim only during an autopsy. By December 2012, evidence of CTE was found in the brains of 33 former NFL players following their deaths. Now, thanks to positron emission tomography, or PET scanning technology, researchers reported in a new study that they can detect tau in living patients by injecting them with a radioactive marker, which latches on to the protein. Recently, five living retired NFL players underwent the process, and tau was found in their brains. Although there is no way to reverse the effects of tau buildup, neuroscientists hope that the new diagnostic method will help them identify the protein long before symptoms become dire. As one of the study’s authors said, “It’s not the perfect holy grail . . . but for now it seems to be showing us what we’re looking for.”

Image credit: © Sebastian Kaulitzki/Alamy

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  1. person says:

    hey that’s me!!

  2. Farhan says:

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  3. Unknown says:


  4. Unknown says:

    But this is cool!

  5. Who says:

    This is actually a very serious thing.