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Study reveals elusive brain damage in retired NFL players, could lead to disease diagnosis before death

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Football (shutterstock)
Football (shutterstock)

According to a report from Frontline, researchers at UCLA have made a groundbreaking discovery, diagnosing a brain disease in living patients — a disease that so far has only been verifiable by an autopsy. The disease, called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, is marked by the accumulation of a protein that causes degenerative brain damage. Frontline reports that UCLA used a proprietary brain-imaging tool to examine former Vikings linebacker Fred McNeill, former back-up quarterback Wayne Clark, and three other unidentified players. Their brain scans revealed a buildup of the brain-damaging protein, which was "concentrated in areas that control memory, emotions, and other functions," in a consistent pattern with those identified in autopsy patients.

A lead author of the UCLA study tells Frontline that the findings are preliminary, "but if they hold up in future studies, this may be an opportunity to identify CTE before players have symptoms so we can develop preventative treatement." As Frontline points out, the ability to diagnose the disease could "lead to questions" about new medical requirements like mandatory testing for athletes at all levels. The NFL spent years denying the connection between football and brain damage, but, as The New York Times reports, has recently acknowledged the effects of long-term concussions. Just a few weeks before that acknowledgement, researchers at Boston University discovered 28 cases of chronic brain damage in 15 dead NFL players, and 13 other athletes. Frontline notes that all of the players in UCLA's study had sustained at least one concussion in their career.