For the first time in history, researchers say they have confirmed a chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) diagnosis in a living person.
The specific athlete highlighted in the study was unnamed, but since its publishing, lead author Dr. Bennet Omalu has confirmed that he and colleagues have confirmed that former NFL player Fred McNeill was living with CTE before his death in 2015.
Omalu is best known as the doctor who first identified CTE in the brains of former football players.
McNeill was first diagnosed with CTE in 2012 using an experimental brain scan that identifies a protein closely tied to CTE called tau. Now, Omalu has confirmed the diagnosis in an autopsy following the athlete’s death.
According to CNN, Omalu presented the findings to McNeill’s wife and his two sons, along with Dr. Sanjay Gupta in 2016. At the time, the family said CTE had changed Fred McNeill from a caring father who held the family together to a man plagued with memory loss, anger, and depression.
“There are some times where the father is the stronghold in the family, or the anchor. If you lose that, everything kind of falls apart. That’s kind of what happened for us. It looked like financial issues at first; it looked like marital issues, and they separated; then it looked like just depression,” Gavin McNeill told Gupta.
This transformation showcased the hallmark signs of CTE developing in Fred’s brain.
CTE is characterized by increasingly severe memory loss, anger problems, issues with controlling behavior and mood, and often suicidal ideation.
The brain disease is believed the be the result of repeated brain trauma, such as concussions or repetitive sub-concussive impacts.
Omalu says that more than a dozen other former NFL players, such as Pro Football Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett, have been evaluated using the experimental brain scan. Several of these athletes may have been tentatively diagnosed with CTE, but McNeill is the first to have their results confirmed in an autopsy.
In the experimental test, Omalu developed and administered a radioactive chemical referred to as a “tracer” which binds to tau proteins in the brain. These proteins can then be seen using scans that focus on the tracer chemical.
Some have criticized Omalu’s efforts by suggesting the tracer chemical may be picking up other proteins such as amyloid, which could be signs of Alzheimer’s or dementia rather than CTE. However, Omalu says the scans also show a unique pattern of tau that is singularly indicative of CTE.
This could potentially be a huge leap forward for researchers and doctors who hope to one day create an objective test for CTE in living people. Before it can be widely used, though, the test must first be replicated in other individuals.
Still, Omalu is optimistic. When asked how long it might be before a similar test is commercially available, Omalu said it could take “less than five years.”