Scientists detected signs of the dementia-like disease in former player Fred McNeill four years ago, but it’s not possible to confirm CTE until after a patient’s death. McNeill died in 2015, and confirmation he had the disease was made last week in the journal Neurosurgery, scientists said Wednesday.
“The importance of this one today is that this is the first time to have a scan which shows brain degeneration of CTE in a living person and then to have that person die and it correlates with the autopsy,” Dr. Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon at NorthShore University in Illinois, said.
Research found the presence of tau, a protein that forms around damaged neural cells, in 14 retired players using a brain scan — including McNeill, who’d been under observation for exhibiting symptoms of CTE.
Dr. Bennet Omalu, a researcher portrayed by actor Will Smith in the 2015 film Concussion, said the presence of tau in the brain leaves a “specific topographic signature,” a distinct pattern.
Scientists said the breakthrough confirmation will likely lead to more sophisticated tests to detect the ailment common in longtime football players.
“If there’s ever a treatment developed, you can test the response to it,” Bailes said. “If you can trust the scans, you can tell a football player he shouldn’t keep playing, or tell someone in the military he can’t [be exposed to] explosions.”
Symptoms of CTE include depression, impulsive anger, violent mood swings, memory loss and, in some cases, Alzheimer-like deficits. The disease has been found in a number of former NFL players after their deaths — including Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Aaron Hernandez.
A warning sign was identified by researchers in September when they discovered significantly elevated levels of biomarker CCL11 in brains of former players who were later confirmed to have CTE.